Affairs of the Heart

examines the elusive origins of love’s greatest symbol

Image: Wikipedia Commons

The mysteries of the heart, the whims of love. If you can’t give this a bit of thought on Valentine’s Day, then you’re even colder than I am. Of course, love as an artistic impulse has inspired a wealth of works: be it a rendering of ardent passion, a suggestion of delicate affection or a seedy depiction of something more carnal. Love is arguably the ultimate muse. But what of the heart? This simple, balanced icon is ubiquitous but still packs some hefty symbolism.

From an anatomical standpoint, the heart is simply a gory organ locked away in our chests – not exactly an image that emanates heady love vibes. But the visual symbolism contrasts greatly; the heart is imbued with rich, honeyed significance, whether it’s a sign of fondness or a quotidian decoration, hung up in a little girls’ room, cute and inoffensive.

vestiges of the heart’s symbolic significance are scattered about various cultures throughout history

The heart’s course in visual history is far more peppered than one would assume, with no distinct starting point or unanimous explanation. Rather, vestiges of the heart’s symbolic significance are scattered about various cultures throughout history. While there’s a wealth of heart-shaped icons in classical antiquity, they don’t actually represent the heart. They’re rather pleasing decorative touches, like a bunch of grapes or leaves. One compelling theory of the heart’s origins are in relation to a North African plant, silphium. It was rare then, extinct now, and phenomenally popular and lucrative, thanks to the fact that it could be used as a form of birth control. In 7th century BC the city-state of Cyrene controlled the silphium trade, and it was so integral to their economy that they minted coins depicting the plant’s seedpod, which echoes the heart icon of today. So, the sex connection came first, then the love bloomed after. Student much?

This silphium theory, although satisfying, is admittedly rather too speculative for many academics. Another theory draws on distinctly unromantic origins: the heart, symbol of love and delight, came about thanks to clumsy attempts to draw actual human hearts. Bit of a let down really. But the relevance of anatomy mustn’t be ignored. The ancients perceived of the heart as a three-chambered organ, with a rounded top and pointy bottom like a pine cone, and this view prevailed for centuries. The heart’s significance picked up in the medieval period, when the medieval tradition of courtly love demanded an appropriately ardent visual representation.


Image: Wikipedia Commons

Some scholars reckon the first ‘modern’ heart can be found in a 13th century French manuscript (well, of course it would be the French). The creator is lost in the mists of time, although rather ironically it was most likely a monk who spent his days cloistered away, far from any matters of the heart. On this fragment of the manuscript, called Le roman de la poire, you’ll see within the burnished centre of a sinuous calligraphic ‘S’, a kneeling lover offering his heart to a damsel. The heart looks a bit on the sad side, more like a golden pear, but for those medievals it echoed the pine cone shape that the ancients were so keen on. Medieval visual tinkering saw this pine cone inverted, the symbol took off and the typical scalloped, ‘Valentine’s heart’ we know today came into being.

And of course, Valentine’s cards played their role. They started to be coyly exchanged in the 17th century and what started out as quaint, even austere, depictions were soon upped to another level of kitsch by the Victorians. They added bows, lacey titbits, flowers, all those sweet, pretty accoutrements. The proliferation of syrupy Valentine’s missives was unstoppable, and now the heart is at the centre of it all. Nowadays, debates rumble and think-pieces moan about the modern world’s infatuation with symbols, that is, emojis. Want to show the love? Stick in a heart, you can even choose the colour! Without a second thought, the heart just denotes love.

Touching on anatomists who can’t draw, idiosyncratic medieval manuscripts, Victorian froufrou-cation and nally the sterility of the screen, the heart’s journey to symbolic immortality has been a real labour of love. The fact that it came from nowhere, a fresh symbol with no prior associations, has lent it a pure and unwavering significance. Ubiquitous but enigmatic, getting to the bottom of the heart remains alluringly elusive.

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