Happy Valentine’s Day

Today is all about the heart isn’t it? Widely recognised as a symbol for love and affection, the heart shape has evolved over centuries. That’s right, it hasn’t been around forever even though it’s a constant in modern life: one of the most widely used emojis is the heart. So how did this ubiquitous symbol, which shows up everywhere from text messages to fine art, come about? Its evolution is unclear, but there are naturally some theories.

Possible Provenance

Heart shapes were used in decorative art by many ancient societies. One of the oldest examples is an Indus Valley civilization pendant embossed with a heart-shaped fig leaf. Ivy, fig and water-lily leaves were all used in art and heraldry. Ivy is often used as a symbol of fidelity. It is possible that the plant’s symbolism contributed to the eventual, modern meaning of the heart-shape.

Another botanical theory involves Cyrene, a city-state in Northern Africa well-known for its production of silphium, a species of giant fennel with culinary and medicinal uses, that its heart-shaped seed pods were emblazoned on their coins. Thought to be a contraceptive, silphium’s association with sex may have caused the heart-shape to become associated with love.

A Medieval German Coat of Arms

Some think the heart-shape is a stylised depiction of human anatomy, representing the curved shape of breasts or buttocks. Others suppose it’s inspired by ancient philosophers, who believed the heart was the seat of the soul and the emotional centre. While physicians such as Galen, the 2nd century father of medicine, described the heart as a three-chambered organ shaped like a pine cone.

Over time, heart-shapes remained popular in decorative art and heraldry, but did not gain a strong connection with love until 13th century. The Medieval concept of courtly love led to more illustrations glorifying romance, often using the heart-shape as a symbol for love, as in the 1250’s French manuscript the Roman de la poire, in which a young man holds his vaguely pine cone-shaped heart up towards his lady love. Up until 14th century, the heart was usually depicted upside down. This shifted in 15th century, as the heart symbol came to resemble what we use today, and became a suit on playing cards.

Detail from Roman de la poire manuscript, 1201-1300.

The Catholic church likes to point to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque’s 1673 vision of Jesus’ Sacred Heart, as the origin of the heart-shape, but it was already in use, though the church’s frequent depictions of this vision certainly helped make it more popular.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus stained glass window at All Saints Catholic Church, St. Peters, Missouri.

Valentine’s Day

The growth of Valentine’s Day, established in 496 to honor the martyred saint who aided lovers and performed secret marriages, helped promote the heart-shape even further. Valentine’s Day gained popularity in 17th century, when it involved simple love notes, often adorned with hearts. The Victorian obsession with elaborate greeting cards made Valentine’s Day into a heart-bedecked extravaganza, a custom continued by modern greeting card companies today.

Today

In 1977, the heart-shape became a verb on the now-ubiquitous t-shirt proclaiming “I ♥ NY.” Heart-shaped icons are now used to measure lives in video games and have become a nuanced shorthand for communicating a range of emotions. While the origins of this symbol are unknown, its meaning has shifted through the years, and will likely continue to evolve, just like our emotions and language.

(All images courtesy of Wikipedia)

22 Comments on “Happy Valentine’s Day

  1. This post was a fun historical read. Next up? Next year? Hearts in red, yellow, green, or blue: What am I really saying with those emojis? 💓💛💚💙

    I like the emoji heart that resembles an exclamation point, though it doesn’t squeeze well into a line of type, as shown here: ❣ For a long time I’ve tweaked my exclamation points in handwriting to be tall thin heart shapes, particularly in greeting cards.

    Liked by 1 person

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