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St. Valentine: patron of lovers — and epilepsy

Stained glass of Saint Valentine
CC/Flickr/TheRevSteve
Saint Valentine

Today is, of course, the feast day of St. Valentine, the martyred Catholic saint who is best known as the patron of lovers.

But St. Valentine is also the patron of people with epilepsy, an association that’s just as old, but much less recognized.

Historians offer two versions of how St. Valentine became an “epilepsy saint.” (He’s one of 40 such patrons, by the way. Apparently, the only other illness with as many saintly aides is the plague.) Some say it was because his name sounds like “fall” in German, and epilepsy was known as “the falling disease” for centuries.

Others say it was because he supposedly cured someone of epilepsy — a young woman engaged to be married, according to one legend.

Art imitating life

From the 15th century onward, many works of Christian art have portrayed St. Valentine with people with epilepsy. Interestingly, as two German neuroscientists pointed out in a 2009 article in the medical journal Epilepsy and Behavior, the epilepsy depicted in that art is often clinically accurate. For example, the extended legs and arms and arched backs of infantile spasms, a specific type of epileptic seizure seen in babies, is clearly evident in many of the 127 paintings and sculptures discussed in the article.

“Despite the fact that from a modern perspective, the 15th to 20th centuries in Europe seemed to be dominated by a rather superstitious attitude toward epilepsy, there is striking accuracy in the detail of the semiology in many of the historic portrayals, and a well-founded knowledge of epilepsy is apparent,” the authors concluded.

An acknowledgement of dual duties

In 1988, St. Valentine’s dual role as patron of lovers and epilepsy was depicted on a very odd Italian postage stamp. (Hat tip: MindHacks.) The saint is shown towering over two lovers, who are lying flat on their backs. (There is some type of animal there, too, but I can’t figure out what it is.) But even more peculiar is the representation of brain waves from an EEG test, which stretches across the center of the stamp. (The EEG test is used to diagnose epilepsy as well as other neurological diseases and conditions.)

Here’s a description of the stamp from a short 2003 article in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry:

An Italian stamp of 1988 shows a pictorial representation of an EEG and St. Valentine. St. Valentine was the first bishop of Temi in Umbria. Some of the mythology is not entirely clear, but St. Valentine was probably a physician who was martyred by the Romans on February 14, 273. He is patron saint of both lovers and epilepsy. There are also other patron saints of epilepsy. Legend has it that St. Valentine miraculously cured a young fiancée, Serapia, afflicted with a mysterious illness, thought now to be epilepsy. Sites where St. Valentine was thought to have lived or visited became pilgrimage destinations for cure of the disorder. These destinations included Rome and Temi in Italy, Ruffach in France (where a hospital for epilepsy was later built), Poppel in Belgium, and Passau in Germany. Soon after Valentine’s death young lovers started making pilgrimages to Temi to be blessed by the Bishop on the 14th hour of every month for eternal love.

The article about six centuries of epilepsy and art is, unfortunately, behind a paywall. But readers who are interested in how epilepsy is currently being portrayed (both accurately and inaccurately) in art may want to check out the website “The Art of Epilepsy.”

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