A little historic background about the origin of this wonderful day explains that it was named for Valentinus, a priest in Rome in the 3rd century AD. He was famous for encouraging young people to marry, which angered Emperor Claudius II, since a married soldier would undoubtedly give his first allegiance to his wife, not to his Emperor! Valentinus was warned repeatedly that this was a serious offense, and when he persisted, and even attempted to convert the Pagan Emperor to Christianity, he was sentenced to be executed. While imprisoned, awaiting his death, he is said to have restored sight to the jailer’s blind daughter. In fact, he apparently left a note, simply signed, “Your Valentine,” possibly the very first valentine.
The earliest “valentine” was actually the person selected in the early Roman lotteries at the Feast of Lupercalia, a popular springtime Pagan holiday. During medieval times, when Christianity became stronger, the holiday was saved, but renamed in honor of Saint Valentinus — patron of lovers, who died on the eve of the festival.
Following the elusive “evolution of the valentine” has been a fascinating journey and a revelation to discover the breadth of the subject, as well as the depth of the passion involved. In this case, the passion was a religious fervor, and the resulting creations were sold for the purpose of charity. This was a sacred love token – as pure as the basic concept of love.
During the Reformation, people were encouraged to honor a patron saint, instead of a person, as their “Valentine”. From the late fifteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, small papercuts known as Devotionals, were created for the joy of the artists’ religious faith. Across the continent, convents and monasteries produced beautifully executed works of art, which are still cherished today for their exquisite designs and their incredible delicacy. Created on parchment, vellum, or paper, they were sold for the benefit of charity, and became popular for celebrating all manner of occasions — from weddings and communions to birthdays, memorials, and Valentines. In my own collection, I have two devotionals which feature the “endless knot of love” which, like the wedding band, has neither beginning nor end. More often, portraits of saints or the sacred heart of Jesus were pictured in a central cartouche and, in rare examples the entire design is pierced. Charming little gouache portraits, bouquets, swags, and religious imagery of hearts and doves adorned these miniature masterpieces. Undecorated papercuts have also been found, indicating that one could have a design customized – even then – for that very special gift.
The lacy designs created by knifework, and often combined with intricate pinpricking, imitated real lace. As we follow the history of the Valentine we can see them as the obvious forerunner of the famous manufactured die-cut, embossed lace papers, with their similar decorative motifs. The intricate tracery of bouquets and borders became inspiration for the later designs, and the swags, which were once inscribed with saints’ names, became the natural location for tender words of love and affection.
Gradually, the use of expensive gifts, then paper messages, marked the holiday. By the early 1800’s the festive day was avidly celebrated in England, and gradually came to America with imported paper Valentines, or in the form of a folk art tradition brought here by German immigrants. From the most simple handmade tokens, valentines evolved to be a very important part of life, thus fueling a major industry.
The special nature of these tokens was reflected in the way these talismans were frequently saved: handed down between the pages of a family Bible, or displayed proudly on the wall! Those found in America must certainly have been lovingly brought here as treasured reminders of home. Some fraktur occasionally bears a resemblance to these older pieces as they inspired artisans in the new land. Their unique form and beauty make them a significant link to the development of the Valentine, as they enable us to understand their important role in the intimate personal communication between friends and lovers so many years ago.
Later cutwork is more familiar to us, with their generally secular themes, but as Valentines, the Devotional was replaced either by commercially manufactured Valentines, or by those created as parlour crafts by sophisticated men and women of the nineteenth century. Today’s tradition is the heritage of those people, and the emphasis they placed on the holiday. Today’s Valentines can reflect your own personality and feelings, and become lasting mementos for the future.
Holidays allow us the opportunity to reflect on just how we mark the passage of time — with special events. Perhaps that is one of the reasons we feel so special about Valentine’s Day, as beauty and sentiment combine with celebrations of love and affection. Cupcakes for the classroom, homemade Valentine crafts, mysterious and often anonymous cards, the classroon Valentine box — or the glorious heart-shaped box of chocolates — from a beau, a husband, or a grandchild — all are indelibly recorded as highlights of our lives. With great joy, we celebrate it again, for ourselves, and by creating memories for another generation. Creating treasured papercut love tokens is surely the continuation of a revered tradition, enabling you to artistically express yourself, sharing your fingerprints of love.
©Nancy Rosin 2007