There seem to be bits and pieces of saints in almost every church in Rome. A bit of John the Baptist’s head is supposedly just down the street at San Silvestro in Capite, Thomas’s doubting finger is at Santa Croce in Gerusalemme … you get the picture. Initially, I found this a bit disconcerting. That being said, you soon realize how proud a congregation is of the things that make their particular church special, in a city absolutely packed with churches.
Today being February 14, I’ve gone to see one particular saint, Valentine himself. He (well, part of him) just happens to reside in a medieval church I really like because of its magnificent Cosmatesque floors — beautiful and complex patterns of colored marble made by the Cosmati brothers. As I noted in a prior post about the Vatican’s floors, I love these floors!
Santa Maria in Cosmedin is a wonderfully preserved medieval church, dating from the 8th century, although much of what we see is practically new — from the 13th century, that is. The church has a lovely bell tower and portico, which is often filled with a line of people waiting to stick their hand in the Mouth of Truth (Bocca della Verità), which is probably an ancient drain cover. It’s a cute tradition to stick your hand in it, as supposedly it would bite off the hand of a liar, but I find it to be one of the less interesting parts of this lovely church.
The church has a peaceful feeling, elegant in its simplicity in the midst of this city filled with the eye-popping splendor of the Baroque. Traces of frescos are visible, and the church incorporates some lovely columns and carved capitals re-used from some ancient Roman building. And then there are those gorgeous floors…
But today is all about Saint Valentine. Although very little is known about him (and he may well be a composite of several people with the same name), the February 14 Feast of St. Valentine goes back to the 5th century. By the 14th century, St. Valentine had become associated with the idea of romantic love, although there is no historical basis for this association. On the left side of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, you’ll find a chapel dedicated to the saint. Today, there were many candles lit to him …
The chapel houses a glass reliquary containing his skull, which is “crowed” with flowers, with his name on a piece of paper affixed to his cranium.
I find St. Valentine’s remains to be more creepy than romantic, but it certainly is one of those eccentric things that I love about Rome. As for my Valentine’s Day, my wife Laura and I will be headed out to Testaccio for dinner. What could be more romantic then dining in a restaurant carved out of a giant, ancient trash dump? Only in Rome.