A Bizantine Valentine

by Danilo Brunetti

Visit the relics of the saint who kicked off Valentine’s Day and ad mire stunning Byzantine art at the same time. Antonella Mastrosanti explains.

Perched on the slopes of the Esquiline Hill, the Basilica di Santa Prassede is arguably one of the most intensely revered sites in Rome, imbued with mysticism and a good dose of legend. The church was originally commissioned by Pope Hadrian I in 780 to house the bones of early martyrs Santa Prassede and Santa Pudenziana. In 822, Pope Paschal embarked on a quest to recover martyrs’ bones from Rome’s catacombs and move them to the church.

He also simultaneously expanded the basilica, adding the celebrated San Zenone Chapel to house the relics of the eponymous saint and to honor his mother Theodora. Both the church and the chapel are famous for their striking Byzantine mosaics. In particular, San Zenone represents one of the most important By­zantine art works in the entire city. Above the cha­pel’s portal sparkle gold mosaic medallions adorned with images of Christ, the Virgin, and the saints, richly colored and almost hypnotizing. But a lesser-known treasure of this church is the tomb of Saint Va­lentine, who appears in the apse mosaic next to the figure of Christ. In fact, the basilica has become a destination of frequent pilgrimages in honor of the protector of lovers, whose feast day has now beco­me the most romantic holiday of the year, celebrated by sweethearts around the globe. In the Middle Ages, it was popular belief that the 14th of February was the exact day that birds began to mate, so that their offspring would be born the following spring. In reality, the holiday coincided with the so-called “Day of the Spinsters;’ when women of marriageable age were given their dowries.

The tomb of Saint Valentine and the exquisite San Zenone Chapel are only some of the gems found at Santa Prassede, a Roman church of rare beauty, famous above all for the golden mosaics of the apse, an exceptional testimony of medieval art in Rome. Via di Santa Prassede, 9a.