New Finished Artwork
“The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart.”
~ Helen Keller
The ubiquitous ‘heart emoji’
The Vintage News defines the heart shape as “an ideograph used to express the idea of the ‘heart’ in its metaphorical or symbolic sense as the core of emotion, affection, and love.”
But how did an organ that pumps blood through our bodies come to have this meaning? The heart symbol has been around for a very long time. If you use any type of social media, you probably use it in your comments multiple times every day. Most of us take it so much for granted that we don’t really think about what it means. When I was working on Matters of the Heart, the piece at the bottom of this post, I realized that I knew virtually nothing about heart symbolism. Where did it come from, and why doesn’t the symbol look like an actual heart – or does it?
So, of course, I decided to look it up. I was expecting to find a quick, simple explanation, since it’s one the most iconic and widespread symbols in the world. I was surprised to find that no one is really sure how current heart symbolism originated, or at least, those that are sure disagree with one another. Here are some of the possibilities for your consideration.
The Shape of a Seed, or Leaf?
Above: cyrenencoin, a coin from the ancient city of Cyrene, depicting the Silphium seed
Right: thought to be a close relative of the silphium plant that was used in ancient Greece and Rome as a contraceptive
As far back as 3000 B.C.E. various heart-shaped leaves, such as fig or ivy, usually appearing as decorations on pottery, symbolized loyalty or fertility. They had nothing to do with the human heart, however, and how these became linked is unclear. Another possiblity is that the shape came from a plant called “silphium” (now extinct), which was used as a form of birth control. The only place it grew was the Greek city of Cyrene, where it was so important to their economy that they used an image of its heart-shaped seed on their coins.
The “Sexy” Parts of a Woman (or Man)?
photo by Jorgo Photography
Others suggest that the curves of the heart shape may represent the curves of the body:
“Another possibility is that the (heart) shape is a crude representation of a pubic mound, the vulva, a pair of breasts, buttocks, or a pair of testicles.” (Matt Soniak, Mental Floss)
While there’s little direct evidence of this, I wouldn’t discount it completely. It seems that many symbols, if you trace them back far enough, are derived from some type of ancient fertility symbol. Another clue may be that, according to Wikipedia, “the shape was used as a symbol indicating brothels in ancient Pompeii.”
Sources for exploration: Dictionary of Symbols byAn Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols by J.C. Cooper
According to an article by Evan Andrews of History.com, the shape may be a result of medieval artists attempting to draw the heart based on ancient texts. The church didn’t allow dissections of the human body, so artists had to base their drawing on descriptions from the ancient Greeks, and/or the dissection of animals whose hearts are actually shaped that way.
Personally, I don’t think it’s so hard to see the shape of the heart icon in the real human heart. It’s abstracted, sure, but without the aorta on the top, not that much imagination is required.
Illustration from The Romance of Alexander, 1344, by Lambert le Tor. – the first known image of the heart icon as we know it.
Whatever the explanation, “…It didn’t mean love before the 13th and 14th centuries,” says Eric Jager, author of The Book of the Heart and medieval literature professor at UCLA. (How the Valentine Heart Got its Shape, Time). It wasn’t until then that the modern idea of romantic love really took hold, starting in France and spreading throughout Europe.
Hearts suit in a 1540s German deck of playing cards. The use of hearts as one of the suits in the deck of playing cards helped to cement the popularity of the symbol.
The human heart has hidden treasures, In secret kept, in silence sealed; The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures, Whose charms were broken if revealed.
Matters of the Heart
Matters of the Heart, mixed media collage on antique book covers, 16.5 x 10.5 inches
ingredients: monotype pieces, antique lace, antique ephemera, found objects, acrylic paint, metallic paint pen, stitching
Given all the information about heart symbolism above, I will leave you to interpret this piece in your own way. You would not be wrong if you feel the meaning is quite sentimental. I would very much like to hear what you think, so please be sure to leave a comment below.
For All Time?
I’m pretty sure that the heart icon and its symbolism will be with us for a very long time to come. Perhaps new meanings may develop in the future as language and human cultures inevitably change. There are many other aspects of heart symbolism that I could have included here, but I didn’t want this post to get too long. If you’re interested, I encourage you to look at some of the sources I referenced. In the meantime, this very short video sums it up nicely. Enjoy!
Please note that Matters of the Heart will soon be available for sale in my Collage and Book Arts Gallery!