Valentine’s Day has, for more than six hundred years, signified that special time for expressing one’s love. It originated in recognition of St. Valentine, a bishop martyred in 270 AD. He was known for going from house to house, leaving food on the doorsteps of the poor. Valentine’s Day became popular in England, Scotland and France, evolving in significance over the years. Chaucer and other early English poets wrote of the country “notion” that birds chose their mates on this day.
Muse, bid the morn awake,
Sad winter now declines,
Each bird doth choose a mate
This day–St. Valentine’s;
For that good bishop’s sake
Get up, and let us see,
What beauty it shall be
That fortune us assigns.
Valentine’s Day, like love itself, was as popular among the lower classes as it was at many European courts. On St Valentine’s Eve in Scotland, young people assembled and wrote the names of their acquaintances on slips of paper, placing the names of young men and maidens in separate bags. The maidens drew from the former, the young men from the latter, three times in succession (returning the names after the first and second drawings). Legend said that if one took out the same name three times consecutively, that person would become the future husband or wife.
A custom of the time also suggests that the younger people in a household were allowed, early in the morning, to catch some senior relative or a friend of the family, and utter the salutation, “Good morrow, Valentine.” It was then expected that a present would be offered. On St. Valentine’s morning, young British women would look through the keyhole of the house door. If they saw only a single object or person, they would remain unmarried all that year. If they saw, however, two or more objects or persons, they would be sure to have a sweetheart; but, if by chance they saw a cock and a hen, they might be quite certain of being married before the year was out.
The “Valentine” as a note or letter appeared in the 15th century–one of the first documented instances being a drawing of a knight and lady, with Cupid in the act of sending an arrow to pierce the knight’s heart. The invention of the printing press and spread of printed materials had increased common literacy. So, by the 17th century, people of all classes were exchanging notes expressing various degrees of heart-felt admiration. And thanks to a formal postal system in the 1850’s, American Esther Howland’s first mass-produced Valentine cards, Valentine’s Day had become quite a “showy affair.”
While the profusion of Valentine’s cards today is commonplace, it was the advent of the Romantic Movement in English literature at the end of the 18th century that laid the groundwork for just such a romantic holiday. The Romantic Movement took the passionless logic, rationalism and pragmatic spirit of the 18th century “enlightenment” and replaced it with emotion, romantic love, and appreciation of the beauties and wonders of the world. The grandeur to which the individual and all human kind were capable became anchors to a humanizing counter-reaction to the utilitarian hard reason, science and expanding industrialization. This was a major influence on the arts and would eventually lead to more emotion-based decorative motifs such as Rococo and Art Nouveau.
Enduring gifts such as jewel boxes with symbolic embellishments became popular. Cast in metal and finished with gold or silver, these elaborate boxes conveyed the wonderful message “I love you.” Cupids, cherubim, hearts and other symbols were employed to render an unmistakable and permanent message that a pretty jewelry box was such a gift. Better than a letter or a singing telegram, a jewelry box in the boudoir, where it could be viewed daily, was a permanent testament and purposeful reminder of affection, as well as a delight to the eye.
When we think of Valentine’s Day today, we envision Roses, Cupid with his golden tipped arrows, and Hearts be-decked with ribbons. What we may have forgotten, is the very rich history behind these and other symbols of love. For example, the heart has long been considered in many cultures to be the seat of human emotions representing energy, devotion, health, and the innermost self. In the earliest of times, the heart shape we now commonly accept, was seen on the seed pod of the Silphium plant–a long extinct type of fennel. This rare plant had medicinal uses that were so valuable that the Greeks believed it to be a gift from Apollo. Hearts as symbols of “love” date from the late medieval period.
The Rose, “Queen of Flowers,” has been a favorite throughout history for its perfect beauty. The rose was native to Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. It was diligently cultivated by the ancients, especially by the Romans. Stories abound regarding the special-ness of this flower: According to a fable, the color of the red rose may be traced to Venus. When she was hastening to the relief of her beloved Adonis, her delicate foot was pierced by a thorn that drew blood. A legend of St. Francis of Assisi relates that as he was once shivering in his room in the depths of winter, a demon whispered in his ear suggestions of ease and luxury. He fought the temptations by going outside and rolling in the snow on a heap of thorns. From these thorns, sprinkled with his blood, sprang Roses of Paradise. Still another legend suggests that Cupid, while leading a dance in heaven, stumbled and overturned a bowl of nectar which, falling upon the earth, colored the rose. Has there ever been a flower which so universally and constantly represents one idea–that of love–as the rose? It is still the ultimate emblem of true affection, love, poetry and beauty.
Cupid is another popular image of love. Today, we most commonly remember him from both Greek and Roman mythology as the son of the Goddess of Love. In those times of mythology, there lived a king whose three daughters were world-renowned for their matchless beauty. Psyche, the youngest daughter, was so lovely that the king’s subjects offered to pay homage to her, rather than Venus as the Goddess of Beauty. In her jealously, Venus commanded her son Cupid to slay Psyche. Armed with his bow and arrows tipped with a deadly poison, Cupid set out to do his mother’s bidding. At nightfall, Cupid crept noiselessly into Psyche’s room and approached the couch where she slept. As he was about to administer the poison, a moonbeam fell upon her lovely face and caused Cupid to pause in surprise. As he did so, one of his love arrows pierced his own rosy flesh, and he fell deeply in love.
Even before the Romans and Greeks, some saw Cupid as one of the most ancient of the deities, and thought that he had no parents, but succeeded immediately from Chaos. Others thought that Night (Nox) produced an egg which, having hatched under her wings, brought forth Cupid who, with golden wings, immediately flew throughout the whole world. Cupid was usually represented naked, to show that love had nothing of its own. He was armed with a bow and quiver full of darts to show his power of the mind, and crowned with roses to show the delightful but transitory pleasures he bestows. Sometimes he was depicted blind, to denote that love sees no faults in the object beloved. He was always drawn with wings to symbolize that nothing is more fleeting than the passion he excites.
It was in the 16th century that angels were first pictured as humans with wings. Angels were considered to be messengers of God. At that time, “cherub” was the proper name of an angel but, by the 18th century, cherubs came to be represented as beautiful and innocent children (or child’s head) between a pair of wings. Their celestial and protective features were “a natural” as a decorative motif on Valentines.
Another formerly common symbol of love, now mostly reduced to a symbol of remembrance, was the Poppy. It seems to have a long tradition of symbolizing fertility, regeneration and renewal, as well as remembrance. Another aspect that makes the poppy important is its very commonness. It grows virtually anywhere, and its juice was frequently administered to induce sleep and relieve pain. The ancients, who regarded sleep as the great physician and consoler of human nature, crowned Morpheus, the God of Sleep, with a wreath of poppies. The many seeds of the poppy emphasize its fertility, and nature’s constant cycle of rejuvenation–in other words, the essence of memory and hope.
All these symbols, the Rose, Cupid, the Heart, Poppies and Cherubs, lavishly adorned the art metal jewelry boxes of yesteryear. There was heartfelt meaning attached to these precious gifts, and they were received as significant symbols of enduring love. A lady’s jewel box was one of her most cherished possessions. For that reason, we still find that these lovely boxes have been held in families for a hundred years! Now we can better understand why.