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The Heart in Art

A very brief history of the origins of a romantic symbol

Whether in art, in a text message, or on a greeting card, you’ve seen it. Today, the heart symbol is synonymous with the concept of love. But have you ever wondered where the symbol came from? Here, we present a brief history.

Though the intended meaning is unclear, the first known example of the heart shape dates to before the last ice age (10,000–8,000 B.C.), and doesn’t reappear until the Middle Ages. Until that time, various cultures—ranging from the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and early Americans—recognized the human heart as a vital organ that was required to sustain life, and as a home for the soul or spirit.

 

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Heart amulets ca. 1550-1186 B.C. New Kingdom Dynasty 18-19 Egypt from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Gift of Helen Miller Gould, 1910.

 

Around the year 1000, the heart symbol as we know it appeared in Christian works of art as a symbol of the love of Jesus Christ. Often shown emitting a sacred light and suffering from wounds, the heart’s importance grew not only in visual representation but also in prayer and doctrine.

 

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Saint Catherine of Siena Exchanging Her Heart with Christ by Giovanni di Paolo (Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia) (Italian, Siena 1398–1482 Siena) tempera and gold on wood from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bequest of Lore Heinemann, in memory of her husband, Dr. Rudolf J. Heinemann, 1996.

 

Throughout the Middle Ages, the heart was a prominent symbol in medieval heraldry, signifying sincerity and clarity. The heart shape also replaced previous, more literal representations of the Holy Grail, which were seen on early sets of playing cards. The heart continued in popularity both as a religious and romantic symbol, and by the 18th and 19th centuries, it had become synonymous with love notes and Valentine’s Day.

 

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A love token ca. 1800 made in Pennsylvania, United States from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Gift of Mrs. Robert W. de Forest, 1933.

 

But how did the heart symbol get its shape? There are a few theories on the subject.

 

The first is that the shape was inspired by that of a plant, either an ivy leaf (a symbol of fidelity), or a siphium leaf. The siphium leaf served various uses in Greco-Roman food and medicine, including as an early form of contraceptive.

 

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Our Pierced Heart Pendant Necklace, handmade in Florence, Italy.

 

Another more widely accepted theory is that the symbol was modeled after medical writings by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose texts rose to popularity in the Middle Ages. In his description, the heart was described as having three chambers with a dent in the center, and diagrams by scientists of the era strongly support this theory.

 

Today, the heart continues to be a beloved symbol of romance and desire. Shop a selection of our favorite picks for Valentine’s Day (including a few hearts!) by clicking here.

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