Posted by Mathilde, 13.02.2018

Why should we celebrate love on February 14, and not just be grateful to Cupid every day? Because we’ve been brainwashed ever since the 14th century.

Let’s go back in time a little. For instance, mythological love stories did not deserve much celebration. Love in mythology was even pretty risky and could have catastrophic consequences. To sum up, it implies fur and feathers, wars, and even child murder. But why is everything so complicated?

Mainly because of the king of gods Jupiter’s quite supernatural appetites; and because of the quite natural jealousy of his royal spouse, Juno. Jupiter is without a doubt the less faithful and the most insatiable divinity one can think of. In order to escape the surveillance of his darling wife, he takes various – sometimes downright weird – shapes and appearances to seduce the humans he covets.

The long list of Jupiter’s love affairs is a privileged topic in art. You can discover some of them in our ‘Founding Myths’ exhibition! Let us quote for instance the rapt of Europe, where the god assumes the form of an irresistible white bull ; or the seduction of Danae, where he changes into a rain of gold…

The Rapt of Europa, Max Beckmann, 1933, Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt
The Rapt of Europa, Titien, 1562, 178x205 cm, Isabelle Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston
Danaé, Gustav Klimt, 1907, 77x83 cm, Galerie Wurthle, Vienne

When the lucky ones are less lucky, Jupiter changes them into different things, in order to “protect” them from Juno’s wrath. Poor Io ends up as a young cow after the god seduces her by metamorphosing into a cloud of grey mist…

Mercure and Argus, Jacob Jordaens, 1620, 202x241 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon (Io, changed as a young cow is in the background)
Le Correge (Antonio Allegri), Jupiter et Io (détail), 162x73,5, vers 1530, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienne.

Unhappy love dealings are not the privilege of gods. Among the humans, they can even get seriously bloody. The love between Paris and Helen of Sparta makes them run away together – an action responsible for sparking off the Trojan War for 10 whole years! Another instance: Jason (the hero on a quest for the Golden Fleece with the Argonauts) finds himself landing on the kingdom of Medea, who falls in love with him. He agrees to marry her in exchange for her help (which implies, among other things, that she should kill her own brother). In the end, Jason will fall for another princess, Creusa, and repudiates Medea. The latter murders her rival and then her own children she had with Jason. What’s there not to celebrate?

Medea, Eugène Delacroix, 1838, 260x165 cm, Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille
Medea, Alphonse Mucha, billboard for Sarah Bernhardt, 1868

Let’s jump ahead a few centuries, to understand what sparked off our annual celebration of a sweetened and sickly amorous interaction. In the 14th century, courtly love is in full swing. The knight pledges honesty and respect to his lady, and proves his bravery by spending years away from her on some random quest. In the end, the mutual elevation of their spirit will make them very happy. At this time, English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (the father of English letters) writes a few lines that will condition our vision of February 14 forever. In his poem The Parlement of Foules (that is, birds) he mentions Valentine’s Day as the date when all the birds in the world are looking for a mate.

That’s it. This is where our association of love to Valentine’s Day stems from.

Thus, the consumerist outbreak around this day rests entirely on winged tetrapod vertebrates’ mating season. This practice is not exclusively contemporary: in the 19th century, Valentine’s cards in the worst taste ever already proliferated, from English Victorian lacy work to French Belle Époque courtesan-like portraits. (PIC cards)

In short, what have we really done to love?

Valentine card, Victorian era
Valentine card, Victorian era
Valentine card, anonymous, 1907