What Is The Origin Of The Heart Symbol?

Valentine’s Day is celebrated as a day of romance symbolised by hearts. Chocolate boxes, balloons, candles and much more are shaped as a heart for Valentines and here we look at the origin of the heart symbol.

The idea of romantic love surfaced in medieval times (fifth to 15th centuries), and with that the symbolism of the heart itself. Previously, it was believed that the heart was a place where God wrote his commands, and that it was a book of memory, an idea that came from the belief that feelings for someone you loved were written in your heart. This was reinforced by stories told about female saints whose hearts had been examined after death and found to carry inscriptions indicating their love of God.

The heart shape

heart shapeThe heart shape used in symbolism is said to be linked to the actual hearts of animals, since the Catholic Church opposed dissection of the human body. This means that whilst the heart symbol we know of today is a familiar shape to the human heart, it is a shape that fits more closely to that of a bird or reptilian heart.

Another suggestion for the origin of the heart shape is one that says the shape comes from a north African plant popular in the Greek city of Cyrene during the seventh century BC. Silphium, a species of giant fennel, is a plant that is now extinct, but once had a lucrative trade for use as a seasoning, but also reputed to have been used as a form of birth control. Silphium was so critical to Cyrene’s economy that coins depicted the plant’s seed-pod, which looks like the shape of the heart used in modern symbolism. The theory suggests the heart-shape of the seedpod was first associated with sex and later with love.

The true origins may be a little more straightforward and certainly less romantic. Some scholars have argued that the symbol has its roots in the writings of Galen and the philosopher Aristotle, who believing the heart contained all human passions, inaccurately described the human heart as having three chambers with a small dent in the middle. This description may have inspired artists making an attempt to draw the heart shape from ancient medical texts to come up with the heart symbol still in use today.

Heart illustrations

valentines day heartThe first non-medical European illustration of a heart comes from around 1255 and is a drawing that accompanies Le Roman De La Poire, a medieval French love poem by Thibaut. The poem tells of a lover who gives away a pear, which is considered to be the source of the idea that a person in love can “give” his or her heart to their beloved. It was a few more decades before the more familiar modern heart symbol appeared.

The modern heart shape is said to come from a 14th-century illustration to the poem Documenti d’amore by the Italian, Francesco Barberino. One of the illustrations depicts a naked cupid standing on the back of a galloping horse throwing arrows, hearts and roses at bystanders. Shortly after its publication, the scalloped heart began appearing in other artwork, including tapestries.

In the early 15th century, a tapestry now held at the Louvre in Paris called Le don du Coeur, translated as The Gift of the Heart, shows a man holding a small red heart. Being associated with emotion and pleasure for some time meant the human heart was eventually adopted as a symbol of romance and medieval courtly love. It is ironic that it was around this time that medical science was beginning to understand that the heart was not the place were feelings were literally recorded. Yet the heart symbol grew especially popular during the Renaissance (14th to 17th centuries), when it was used as one of the four suits in playing cards and in religious art.

Most scholars agree that the heart symbolism existed much earlier than the 1600s, but the Catholic Church argued that the modern heart shape did not appear until the seventeenth century, when Saint Margaret Mary Alocoque had a vision of a heart surrounded by thorns, which later became symbolic of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ and was associated with both love and devotion. This heart symbolism began to be used in stained-glass windows and other church iconography, and whilst it may have made the shape more popular, it was not the first use of the heart symbol.

When the exchange of Valentines increased in popularity during the 17th-century in England, the heart symbol became more common. By the 18th and 19th centuries the Victorians had made Valentine’s Day cards much more elaborate and the heart symbol, with ribbons and bows became an established and recurring motif.