Each year on February 14, millions of people worldwide celebrate their love with chocolate, roses, Hallmark cards and romantic dinners. And for hundreds of years, various basilicas, churches and monasteries have been erected in honor of St. Valentine, the patron saint of love. Many of these churches have claimed to house the remains of St. Valentine; however, the skull of St. Valentine is said to be on display at the Church of Santa Maria in Rome.
St. Valentine was martyred and beheaded for performing Christian wedding ceremonies in A.D. 269 In A.D. 496, Pope Gelasius I made February 14 — originally part of the Roman festival of Lupercalia — a feast day dedicated to St. Valentine.
When thinking of churches in Rome, most people would imagine picturesque cathedrals, but for the Church of Santa Maria, its history draws thousands of visitors each year. Its most notable features are a tall, squarish bell tower and housing the skull of St. Valentine.
Construction started on Santa Maria in the eighth century over the ruins of an ancient temple. It was in the center of what was then the Greek community in Rome, and the skull of St. Valentine was thought to have been brought there shortly thereafter. Most of the church’s remains date back to the eighth and 12th centuries, including the crypt located beneath the altar. The church displays several magnificent elements, such as the floor mosaics, the bishop’s chair, the altar and the medieval choir enclosure.
St. Valentine’s skull resides in a glass enclosure surrounded by flowers and can be found in the side altar on the left side of the church.
The church is also well known for another reason. Next to the entrance to the basilica is the famous Mouth of Truth. It is an ancient image carved in a round, Italian marble slab. The enormous marble mask is said to bite the hand of those who lie. This was the site featured in the 1953 film Roman Holiday starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn.
For more information on the Church of Santa Maria, visit www.romesite.com.