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February 14, 2018

The Oldest Image of Saint Valentine

Located at the foot of the Palatine Hill, Santa Maria Antiqua (or Ancient Church of Saint Mary) is the oldest Christian church in the Roman Forum dating to the 5th century. The church contains a unique collection of wall paintings from the 6th to late 8th century. Rome changed hands multiple times during Santa Maria Antiqua's use. The defeat of the Western Roman Empire by the Goths in the fifth century gave way to Eastern Roman or Byzantine and Lombard influence in the late fifth to mid eighth centuries. Artists from the Greek community surrounding the church had local influence, and there was also a Byzantine administration operating atop the Palatine Hill, at the base of which is Santa Maria Antiqua, which probably served as their chapel. This continual change in influences is thought to be a determining factor in the different styles in this church. Influences can also be traced through remaining inscriptions: Greek in Pope Martin I's (649-653) decorations, Greek and Latin in Pope John VII's (705-707) and completely Latin in Pope Paul I's (757-767). In the course of more than three centuries, up to the year 847, when an earthquake devastated the Palatine causing landslides that buried the church, Santa Maria Antiqua was enriched by extraordinary pictorial cycles, some in overlapping layers, becoming a repository of iconographic treasures among the most important of the early Middle Ages.


The church practically disappeared, covered by other buildings, but it reappeared in the early 1900's when archaeological excavations were started. Then all its pictorial patrimony was discovered, very important both for the iconographic programs linked to both the dogmatic currents and by the Byzantine Empire spreading to the West, for the stylistic tendencies that show the strong influence of Greek-Byzantine and Syriac art. Among the fresco paintings that adorn the left aisle of this fascinating sacred building, re-emerged from the past, in the band in which a Christ enthroned is surrounded by Saints of eastern origin, is Saint Valentine, clearly identifiable by the lateral inscription in Greek "Agios Balentinos"; he is on the right hand of Christ, next to Saint Abundius (both were venerated along the Via Flaminia). He looks like a young man wearing a priestly robe and sandals, holding the Gospels in his arm. Though all the oldest images of Saint Valentine are in Rome dating to the 8th and 9th centuries, in the Catacombs of San Valentino and in the Basilica of Santa Prassede, the fresco of Santa Maria Antiqua dates back to the period of the pontificate of Paul I (757-767) as can be deduced from the typology of the Greek-language characters that identify the Roman pontiffs, the patriarchs, the eastern bishops and the western and eastern saints and martyrs. The number of saints was to be 24, including 12 of the Eastern Church, arranged to the left of Christ, and as many of the Western Church to his right, as if to underline the unity of faith in the doctrine of the two Churches. Valentine stands among the Saints of the Western Church, but since they have Greek origin it has been supposed that perhaps Valentine may have Greek origins as well.