The Transfiguration by Rubens
Featuring St. Valentine

There are several surprises I came across in looking for Valentine art.  The portrayal of St. Valentine above was introduced to me as once the world’s most famous painting, which is a description I had no previous knowledge of [see note].

For more than 300 years – from approx. 1520 to 1850 – Raphael’s “Transfiguration” [see episode "Epilepsy in the Bible (II) of this series] was deemed the “world’s most famous painting” and this assessment continued to serve subsequent artists as a template for the depiction of the transfiguration topic, as it did for the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, when he was commissioned in 1605 to decorate the Jesuit Church in Mantua with a transformation image. When working on this painting, Rubens closely adhered to the almost one hundred year older Raphaelian template, which he much admired.

Today, Rubens’ colossal painting (407×670 cm, oil on canvas) can be viewed at the Musée des beaux-arts in Nancy. It bears the same title as its Italian predecessor: “La Transfiguration” (“The Transfiguration”). As is the case with Raphael’s painting, the upper part of the image shows Christ’s transfiguration, the appearance of the prophet Moses and Elijah and three accompanying apostles. The lower part depicts two groups of people opposite each other: the nine remaining apostles on the left and the parents with their “moonstruck” son and some companions on the right. As in Raphael’s masterpiece, theRubens painting also depicts the connection between the two groups by a beautiful female figure on her knees, Mary Magdalene – reproduced with erotic grace – pointing with her right hand to the ill boy in the arms of his parents.

Rubens was renowned in a way we don’t remember, when the world and its aristocracy was small.  His paintings dominated art that was recognized at the time, and religious themes were necessary for that fame.

Reasons for honoring St. Valentine are obscure, but as this is the time midwinter transforms into spring, love legendarily is blossoming.

In the account which says the saint was the one who sent the very first valentine, he falls in love with the beautiful jailer’s daughter who studies scripture and prays with him in prison. She had been blind since birth, but one day during their prayer time she is miraculously cured of her blindness. The night before he was beheaded, he sends a note of affection to her, asking her to always remain near to God and continually thankful for her healing miracle. The note is signed “From Your Valentine.” Yet another version of this same story says that Valentine had been put under the charge of General Asterius, who was supposed to persuade him to deny Christ. The woman restored to sight in this account is General Asterius’s daughter, who had been afflicted with blindness for two years. As a result of this miracle Valentine is allowed to baptize Asterius and his whole household before he is killed. A third St. Valentine died in Africa, and also has a February 14 feast day. Nothing else is known about him.

Legends are what we make of them, and I’ll choose the saint described as ‘nothing else is known about him’ and add ‘or her’, purely for whimsy.  As you can tell, I was not raised Catholic and did not convert to it which would have required me to study its beliefs/customs. While I did play with giving up things for lent, I didn’t ever choose a patron saint or feel as if one were watching over me.

If you ever felt a closeness with St. Valentine or any other saint, please don’t be offended if I treat that lightly.  No doubt it was a good way to feel a part of the world around you.

(Picture courtesy of Freb at wikimedia commons.)