Bryan Ceronie & Gerhard Kluger
St Valentine, the Chaucerian saint of romantics and lovers is a prominent figure in the Catholic calendar. But his other role, as the patron saint of epilepsy, is less widely known. He became associated with the ‘falling sickness’ in around the 9th century. Since the 15th century, depictions of St Valentine in Christian art have included figures suffering fits and displaying a variety of other neurological signs. Frescos throughout Germanic and Roman Europe contain images of the healer, tending to afflicted women and children in the midst of terrifying, demonic seizures.
Kluger and Kudernatsch (2009) looked at these portrayals across almost 350 works of art from throughout Germanic Europe, examining contemporary attitudes towards epilepsy as expressed by altar art of the time1. Between the 15th and 20th centuries, more than 50% of illustrations of St Valentine contain children or adults in horizontal, supplicative positions, possibly indicating the presence of a seizure. These surprisingly clinically accurate depictions present a fascinating snapshot of contemporary views of the disease, including its association with the young and vulnerable, its multifaceted and unpredictable presentation, and its relationship to demonic forces which required relief through exorcism or prayer.
St Valentine appears in the ceiling fresco from 1740 above helping various disease-sufferers. The image is focused on a mother holding an infant with its arms high above its head, its legs spread and mouth open as if crying out. This appears to be a clear depiction of the abnormal posturing seen in in infantile spasms. Small spirits or demons are seen vacating the child’s body, suggesting the ‘falling sickness’ has been driven out of the child by the righteous power of the saint.
In the image to the left, St Valentine is shown in an altar sculpture before a young boy. The boy appears unconscious, his knees flexed, his arms stiff and by his sides, his neck turned to the right. The stiff appearance of the boy suggests he could be suffering a myotonic seizure (a less common type of generalised seizure), or in the tonic phase of a generalised tonic-clonic seizure.
In the last image below, an altar depiction shows St Valentine trying to heal a woman lying on the floor. The bizarre posture the woman finds herself in, with legs drawn, right arm stiff and to the side, left arm raised above head and neck tilted at contorted angle, also suggests a seizure. Like the boy, she could be in the tonic phase of a generalised seizure. The strange posturing is similar to that seen in a complex partial seizure, a type of focal seizure involving complex automatic movements or a ‘Jacksonian march’ of movements descending down one side of the body.
Epilepsy is a common neurological disorder characterised by recurrent, unprovoked seizures or ‘fits’. The relationship between these attacks and the religious portrayals has been described as far back as ancient India, where at least four different presentations have been associated Shiva as the ‘divine dancer’2. Some have even speculated about its appearance in the bible, with text in Corinthians regarding Paul’s sudden ‘attacks’ suggesting some of the features of temporal lobe epilepsy, a disorder commonly associated with mysticism and religious experiences3. Its association with St Valentine and Christianity probably came about in the Middle Ages, where words still used today likened the ictal state to demonism and supernatural morbidity.
It’s interesting to look on these works as they give us an astonishing insight into the relationship between the divine and the disease, and the focus on the victim at the centrepiece of the artwork. In some ways these works mirror modern artists suffering with epilepsy as they struggle to depict, explore and otherwise make sense of their chaotic and unpredictable neuropsychiatric illness.
- Kluger, G. Kudernatsch, V. (2009) St Valentine – patron saint of epilepsy: Illustrating the semiology of seizures over the course of six centuries. Epilepsy & Behaviour. 14: 219-225
- Desitin Pharma. The epilepsy motif in religious art.
- Burden, G. Did epilepsy lead to the foundation of Christianity?
All images courtesy of Gerhard Kluger and Jozef DeBeer.