The heart shape is an ideograph used to express the idea of the “heart” in its metaphorical or symbolic sense as the center of emotion, including affection and love, especially romantic love.

The “wounded heart” indicating lovesickness came to be depicted as a heart symbol pierced with an arrow (Cupid’s), or “broken” in two or more pieces.

Origins of symbol

In the 6th-5th century BC, the heart shape was used to represent the heart-shaped fruit of the plant Silphium, a plant possibly used as a contraceptive. Many species in the parsley family have estrogenic properties, and some, such as wild carrot, was used to induce abortion.

Silver coins from Cyrene of the 6–5th BC bear a similar design, sometimes accompanied by a silphium plant and is understood to represent its seed or fruit.

Earliest use

The earliest known visual depiction of the heart symbol, as a lover, hands his heart to the beloved lady, in a manuscript of the Roman de la poire, mid-13th century.

The combination of the heart shape and its use within the heart metaphor developed at the end of the Middle Ages, although the shape has been used in many ancient epigraphy monuments and texts.

Roman_de_la_poire heart metaphor

With possible early examples or direct predecessors in the 13th to 14th century, the familiar symbol of the heart representing love developed in the 15th century, and became popular in Europe during the 16th.

Before the 14th century, the heart shape was not associated with the meaning of the heart metaphor. The geometric shape itself is found in much earlier sources, but in such instances does not depict a heart, but typically foliage: in examples from antiquity fig leaves, and in medieval iconography and heraldry typically the leaves of ivy and of the water-lily.

One possible early use in the 11th century could be found in the manuscript, Al-Maqamat written by Al Hariri of Basra. The manuscript includes an illustration of a farewell greeting between two men while astride their camels, with the heart shape seen prominently over their heads.

The first known depiction of a heart as a symbol of romantic love dates to the 1250s. It occurs in a miniature decorating a capital ‘S‘ in a manuscript of the French Roman de la poire (National Library FR MS. 2086, plate 12)

In the miniature, a kneeling lover (or more precisely, an allegory of the lover’s “sweet gaze” or douz regart) offers his heart to a damsel. The heart here resembles a pine cone (held “upside down”, the point facing upward), in accord with medieval anatomical descriptions.

However, in this miniature what suggests a heart shape is only the result of a lover’s finger superimposed on an object; the full shape outline of the object is partly hidden, and therefore unknown.

Moreover, the French title of the manuscript that features the miniature translates into “Novel Of The Pear” in English. Thus the heart-shaped object would be a pear; the conclusion that a pear represents a heart is dubious. Opinions, therefore, differ over this being the first depiction of a heart as a symbol of romantic love.

Giotto in his 1305 painting in the Scrovegni Chapel (Padua) shows an allegory of charity (Caritas) handing her heart to Jesus Christ. This heart is also depicted in the pine cone shape based on anatomical descriptions of the day (still held “upside down”).

Giotto’s painting exerted considerable influence on later painters, and the motive of Caritas offering a heart is shown by Taddeo Gaddi in Santa Croce, by Andrea Pisano on the bronze door of the south porch of the Baptisterium in Florence (c. 1337), by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Palazzo Publico in Siena (c. 1340) and by Andrea da Firenze in Santa Maria Novella in Florence (c. 1365).

The convention of showing the heart point upward switches in the late 14th century and becomes rare in the first half of the 15th century.

The “scalloped” shape of the now-familiar heart symbol, with a dent in its base, arises in the early 14th century, at first only lightly dented, as in the miniatures in Francesco Barberino’s Documenti d’amore (before 1320).

A slightly later example with a more pronounced dent is found in a manuscript from the Cistercian monastery in Brussels.

The convention of showing a dent at the base of the heart thus spread at about the same time as the convention of showing the heart with its point downward. The modern indented red heart has been used on playing cards since the late 15th century.

Various hypotheses attempted to connect the “heart-shape” as it evolved in the Late Middle Ages with instances of the geometric shape in antiquity.

Such theories are modern, proposed from the 1960s onward, and they remain speculative, as no continuity between the supposed ancient predecessors and the late medieval tradition can be shown.

Specific suggestions include the shape of the seed of the silphium plant, used in ancient times as an herbal contraceptive, and stylized depictions of features of the human female body, such as the female’s breasts, buttocks, pubic mound, or spread vulva.

Renaissance and early modern

Heart shapes can be seen in the Bible Jesus holds in the Empress Zoë mosaic in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, but a reference to the organ was probably not intended. It probably dates from 1239.

heart Empress_Zoe_mosaic_Hagia_Sophia

Likewise, heart shapes can be seen on various stucco reliefs and wall panels excavated from the ruins of Ctesiphon, the Persian capital (circa 90 BC – 637 AD).

The Luther rose was the seal that was designed for Martin Luther at the behest of Prince John Frederick, in 1530, while Luther was staying at the Coburg Fortress during the Diet of Augsburg.

Luther wrote an explanation of the symbol to Lazarus Spengler:

“a black cross in a heart, which retains its natural color, so that I myself would be reminded that faith in the Crucified saves us. ‘For one who believes from the heart will be justified’ (Romans 10:10).”

The aorta remains visible, as a protrusion at the top centered between the two “chambers” indicated in the symbol, in some depictions of the Sacred Heart well into the 18th century, and is partly still shown today (although mostly obscured by elements such as a crown, flames, rays, or cross) but the “hearts” suit did not have this element since the 15th century.

Hearts reached Japan with the Nanban trade of 1543 to 1614, as evidenced by an Edo period Samurai helmet (dated c. 1630), which includes both the rounded and indented forms of the heart symbol, representing the heart of Marishiten, goddess of archers.

Modern

Since the 19th century, the symbol has often been used on Valentine’s Day cards, candy boxes, and similar popular culture artifacts as a symbol of romantic love.

The use of this symbol as a logograph for the English verb “to love” derives from the use in “I NY,” introduced in 1977.

Hearts were used to symbolize “health” or “lives” in video games; influentially so in The Legend of Zelda (1986). Super Mario Bros. 2 (1987, 1988) had a “life bar” composed of hexagons, but in 1990s remakes of these games, the hexagons were replaced by heart shapes.

Since the 1990s, hearts have also been used as an ideogram indicating health outside of the video gaming context, e.g. its use by restaurants to indicate heart-healthy nutrient content claim (e.g. “low in cholesterol”).

A copyrighted “heart-check” symbol to indicate heart-healthy food was introduced by the American Heart Association in 1995.

References:

*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.