By Stuart Frost
February 12th, 2007
Valentine’s day falls on Wednesday 14th February this week so it was inevitable that it would provide the subject for this blog-entry. Whilst there are many statues or images of saints in the V&A alas, as far as I am aware, there is not one of St Valentine. A reference book informs me that St Valentine’s day probably commemorates two Valentine’s rather than one. One was a Roman priest martyred around 269AD, and the other a bishop of Terni who was taken to Rome and put to death there. Neither appears to have had a strong association with romantic love or courtship.
Whilst there aren’t any images of St Valentine to illustrate this entry, there are many objects in the V&A’s collections that have a clear link with desire, love or marriage. Some of these have a strong connection with romance literature. Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet may feature the two most famous lovers of medieval and Renaissance literature, but before Romeo and Juliet (as the marketing for the recent Ridley Scott film went) there was Tristan and Isolde. The Ridley Scott film doesn’t follow the original romance particularly closely, but it is entertaining and is testament to the enduring appeal of the epic medieval masterpiece.
The story of the two lovers was one of the most popular romances of the Middle Ages and existed in many versions written by different authors. The earliest of the surviving versions were written around 1160. Scenes from the legend were depicted on a wide range of luxury objects including ivory caskets, textiles and tiles. I’ve included three examples here, a quilt, a hanging and a magnificent metalwork salt (or table decoration). Click on the photographs for more detailed views and further information. Even if you look carefully at the salt I’ll doubt you’ll be able to see the small figures of Tristan and Isolde playing chess underneath the main mast of the ship. It is easier to see the figures of the sailors manning the deck and climbing the rigging around Tristan and Isolde. It was on this voyage that the fate of the two lovers was sealed. Tristan had been instructed to bring Isolde from her native Ireland to Cornwall to marry his uncle, King Mark. On the ship the couple drank a magic love potion prepared by Isolde’s mother, intended for her daughter to share with King Mark. As a result Tristan and Isolde share an unbreakable and everlasting love, rather than Isolde and her husband King Mark. After many events and adventures their relationship, like that of Romeo and Juliet, ends tragically.
With hindsight maybe I should have picked an object related to a story with a less depressing ending? Never mind. Happy Valentine’s Day!