St. Valentine’s Day and Ancient Lie Detection

Facade of Santa Maria in Cosmedin; Source: Wikimedia Commons; Author: Lamre

Facade of Santa Maria in Cosmedin; Source: Wikimedia Commons; Author: Lamre

I’m rather a curmudgeon when it comes to made up holidays, as evidenced by my screed on Halloween, but unfortunately Mrs. Q is the one who suffers whenever “St. Valentine’s Day” rolls around. She is a most patient and tolerant wife who does not try to change me. She deserves flowers and chocolate every day of the year, and not just on the one day that merchants have jacked up the prices on these items to provide themselves a little extra revenue between Christmas and Easter.

However, there is a bit of history surrounding St. Valentine that is interesting.

The Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome was built in the 8th century during the Byzantine Papacy over the remains of the Templum Herculis Pompeiani and the Statio annonae, which was one of the early food distribution centers in ancient Rome. The word cosmedin comes from the Greek for “ornate” to signify that the basilica was regarded as beautiful.

IMG_4311There is a side altar on the left side of the basilica that purportedly houses the flower-adorned skull of St. Valentine. However, according to this article in the Catholic Encyclopedia (maintained at, at least three different St. Valentines are mentioned in early martyrologies for February 14. “One is described as a priest at Rome, another as bishop of Interamna (modern Terni), and these two seem both to have suffered in the second half of the third century and to have been buried on the Flaminian Way, but at different distances from the city.”

I suppose the skull could have belonged to either the priest or the bishop, since it’s somewhat less likely that the skull of the third Valentine (who lived and died in Africa) would have made its way to Rome. But so little is known about the St. Valentine of modern creation that the Church actually removed the feast day from the General Roman Calendar in 1969, although he may still be included on local liturgical calendars and his relics may still be permissibly venerated by the faithful.

IMG_4314The portico of Santa Maria in Cosmedin houses another fascinating item, the Bocca della Verita — the “Mouth of Truth” — an image of a man’s (or pagan god’s) face with an open mouth dating from the first century and fashioned from marble. It might have been part of an ancient fountain, or, possibly a manhole cover.

A tradition began in the Middle Ages that people (especially young lovers) would visit the Bocca della Verita and place their hands in its open mouth. It was believed that if one told a lie with one’s hand in the mouth of the sculpture (or alternatively, if one was a liar but not necessarily telling a lie at the moment of placing one’s hand in the mouth) it would be bitten off. Thus, the Bocca developed into a medieval lie detector that became a rather popular attraction.

This St. Valentine’s Day, I symbolically place my hand in the Bocca’s mouth and declare my undying love and fidelity to Mrs. Q!


One thought on “St. Valentine’s Day and Ancient Lie Detection

  1. Pingback: Thursday, February 12, 2015: Fifth Week of Ordinary Time | The Quarterdeck

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