Emotion taking shape

The love heart is one of the most universally recognised symbols. While often used today, its origins are ancient and embedded in science and culture.

Illustration by Joanna Beckett

Illustration by Joanna Beckett

An anatomically correct heart is distinctly less appealing than the love heart symbol, with its ventricles, veins and protruding aorta. It's not surprising then that our modern day representation of the heart has morphed into something more pleasing to the eye. But how did it become such a widespread metaphor for love and romance, a popular icon and a validated representation of the human heart? 

The development of the popular heart emblem may have begun centuries ago when it was believed that the heart, rather than the brain, was the centre of human emotion, and is the reason we now use expressions such as “heartbroken,” “heartache” or “my heart is full” when verbalising emotions. With influences from ancient Romans and Greeks, distinguished physicians, scientists and then influential modern artists, the heart symbol has maintained its popularity as a visual cue to communicate our heart’s desire.

The first known drawing of a love heart as we know it today: the heart of a mammoth.   Hajar, R  (open access)

The first known drawing of a love heart as we know it today: the heart of a mammoth. Hajar, R (open access)

Ancient history and the origins of the love heart

The first known representation of the love heart came from our prehistoric ancestors, with an etched image of what we now know as the love heart symbol, representing the heart of a mammoth on a cave wall in Spain, some 15,000 years ago.

The love heart or ivy leaf was associated with Dionysus, the Greek God of wine and fertility.   Bibi Saint-Pol/Wikimedia Commons  (public domain)

The love heart or ivy leaf was associated with Dionysus, the Greek God of wine and fertility. Bibi Saint-Pol/Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Yet, there are several theories on how the love heart symbol came to look the way we know it now. One is the association of the ivy leaf, commonly associated with the Greek god of wine and fertility, Dionysus. Various pottery items produced as far as back 3,000BC obviously depict love hearts. However, in these instances the love heart is noted to be a simplification of either a fig or ivy leaf, not a representation of the human heart and has nothing to do with love. However, in the 4th century AD, the love heart or ivy leaf was used to signal a brothel in the city of Ephesus, potentially giving rise to a double meaning.

Others believe the heart symbol may have arisen as a representation of the female form, taking the shape of breasts or buttocks. Using the imagination, the rounded lobes of the love heart could appear as a woman’s breasts pushed together, possibly by a corset, which was popular among men and caused a lot of pain among women during the Renaissance. When flipped upside down, the lobes can appear as a butt with a small waist. Man’s arousal by a woman with a narrow waist and wide hips may have evolved from the principle that women with wider hips have a much easier time of giving birth. Our society's fascination with the female form and sexuality has been prominent throughout history, so it could easily be interpreted this way.

Galen teaching a vivisection class using a pig. Galen described the heart as "ivy leaf"-shaped.   Wikimedia Commons  (public domain)

Galen teaching a vivisection class using a pig. Galen described the heart as "ivy leaf"-shaped. Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Historians cannot be entirely sure how images of leaves transformed into representations of the human heart, but it was quite possibly due to the lack of scientific understanding at the time. Rome had prohibited the dissection of human cadavers from around 150BC, so the heart’s anatomical form was a mystery. Galen, one of the most influential physicians in antiquity, examined animal cadavers and undertook vivisection to assist in gaining clues for human anatomy, due to this prohibition of autopsies. He reported the heart as looking somewhat like an inverted leaf, similar to the heart-shaped ivy leaves in ancient Greece.

Historical heart art

In the 13th century, the heart symbol first made its appearance in artwork as not only a representation of the human heart, but of love as well. Le Roman de la Poire or Romance of the Pear, illustrated in 1250, is the first example of the symbol poetically signifying love. The painting conveys a man handing his heart to a woman who seems to be his lover, symbolising his love for her.

"The Romance of the Pear."   Wikimedia Commons  (public domain)

"The Romance of the Pear." Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

The esteemed Italian painter Giotto di Bondone influenced the portrayal of the heart symbol throughout the 1300s and 1400s when he was commissioned to paint to the Scrovegni Chapel. The heart symbol, in his portrait of Charity handing her heart to Jesus Christ, was used as a reference for many artists during this time to signify divine love.

In the 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci, an artist and a scientist, revolutionised the understanding of the anatomical heart. Although dissections were frowned upon, da Vinci was able to draw beautifully accurate depictions of the human heart, alongside other internal organs, muscles, nerves and vessels. While he produced the most advanced characterisation of the human body at the time, his findings were not published until much later, likely due to the rules forbidding dissections. Upon his return to Rome, he was accused of ‘unseemly conduct’. When da Vinci’s work was published in 1543 by Andreas Vesalius in his book De Humani Corporis Fabrica, there was finally an accurate account of the human heart. This, however, did not change the way the heart was represented as a symbol.

Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawing of the heart.   BBC/Science Photo Library  (public domain)

Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawing of the heart. BBC/Science Photo Library (public domain)

Religious art continued to use the heart symbol as a representation of the human heart. In 1673, a nun, Margaret Mary Alacoque, claimed to encounter Jesus Christ who supposedly told her ‘to rest her head upon his heart’ and inform the world of his eternal love. This apparent message resulted in the devotion of the Sacred Heart, or the belief that Jesus Christ's physical heart is the representation of his divine love for humanity. A 17th century painting by Philippe de Champaigne portrayed Saint Augustine holding a flaming heart, thought to represent divine love in Christian religion. Catholic missionaries, carrying the sacred heart helped to extend the popularisation of the symbol, securing it as the symbol of love and the human heart.

The love heart today: Art and technology

Contemporary artists have maintained the popularity of the heart symbol, using it as a form of expression for their opinions on the world.

Andy Warhol, also known as the King of Pop Art, was known for reformulating everyday items or symbols such as Campbell's soup, Coca-Cola — and also hearts. Through his art, Warhol exhibited the beauty within ordinary objects and familiar images; the monotonous feel of his "Four Hearts" piece, for example, gives it a machine-made aesthetic. Warhol often commented on mass production and consumer consumption. As machines and factories are essentials to this culture, Warhol used a mass produced heart symbol to illustrate his views on contemporary society.

Another contemporary artist central in the development of the Pop Art movement in the sixties, Jim Dine is known for his iconic depictions of the heart symbol, which he uses to represent human interaction and as a template for his emotions, where absolutely anything can be expressed. Subsequently, the heart symbol has become attributable to the artist.   

Similar to the concept of Pop Art, breaking conventional rules and not following order or instruction, the Dada movement, too influenced heart symbol popularity. One of the great minds behind the Dada movement and a pioneer of Conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp, took a slightly different and somewhat scientific approach to depicting the symbol. He used red and blue hallmark love hearts within each other, slightly askew, to create an optical illusion of a “Fluttering Heart” and appeared on the cover of Cahiers d'Art, a French artistic and literary magazine in 1936. The fluttering of the heart in this piece creates the appearance of a pulsating heart based on the scientific theory of physiological optics, whereby the illusion is caused by a differential in sensory activity latencies of different colours. The idea of the heart pulsating once again links the symbol and the physical heart.

"The Two Fridas" by Frida Kahlo.   Peter K. Levy/Flickr  (public domain)

"The Two Fridas" by Frida Kahlo. Peter K. Levy/Flickr (public domain)

Although it was not as common in fine art, the anatomical heart was used by some contemporary artists. For example, Frida Kahlo used the anatomical heart in her art work The Two Fridas, painted following her divorce from Diego Rivera and representing her two personalities with a broken heart and a healthy heart. The Heart of Memory was an expression of her wounded heart after her husband and her sister Cristina had an affair, where she has a hole in her chest and her heart is lying on the sand. 

"Girl With a Balloon" by Banksy.   Dominic Robinson/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

"Girl With a Balloon" by Banksy. Dominic Robinson/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Perhaps the most influential artist using the heart symbol in the present day is the anti-establishment, anti-war graffiti artist Banksy. With his thought-provoking stencil art plastered high and low on buildings, under bridges and on historical monuments, the use of the heart symbol to convey a message has never been so prominent and effective. Banksy's myriad of pieces, many containing love hearts, often include an element of irony and subversion. His "Girl With a Balloon" piece, depicting a heart shaped balloon, leaves the viewer ambivalent. It is not immediately obvious whether the heart is floating away from the girl, representing lost hope, or if she has released it from her grasp, giving her child-like hope and love to the world. It may epitomise the idea that everything is within our reach, we just need to face the fear and grab it, or that all our desires are just beyond our reach. We cannot be sure, but because of this, the heart balloon is symbolic of our dreams, our aspirations, our childhood innocence, love, hope and joy. 

The love heart emoji as we know it today.   Emoji One  (CC BY 4.0)

The love heart emoji as we know it today. Emoji One (CC BY 4.0)

Today, the love heart has crept its way into our technology. The addition of the love heart emoji to cell phone keyboards and social media platforms means we can use it to communicate as part of our everyday lives. Back in 1995, the heart symbol became the first emoji to enter the digital communication world. During the 90s, pagers were Japanese teenagers’ equivalent to the millennials’ iPhone; the company with the hottest device and market share, Docomo, introduced the heart symbol allowing their users to express a little more emotion. Interestingly, when the company decided to discard the symbol of love, the teen users switched providers as Docomo was no longer catering to their needs, illustrating the necessity for this form of communication with the younger generation. The original emoji was developed by Shigetaka Kurita when he noticed a problem with miscommunication that occurred when using only text. 

The creator of the original emoji was asked: “What does it mean when a girl sends you a heart symbol in a text?” Kurita replied, laughing: “I wouldn’t know if she liked me or not, but I’d think it was a good thing. I wouldn’t think it was a negative.” This quote summarises the idea that the heart symbol has the ability to stir a multitude of emotions; and as we have seen from the many historical representations, the true meaning can be elusive.

Our knowledge of the function of heart has evolved significantly since the first illustrations, we now have a greater understanding of the role it plays in maintaining human life and we have come to the general consensus it is not the epicenter of our feelings of romantic love. Still, if history is anything to go by, the scalloped red symbol will forever be a means to express strong emotion, whether ironic or literal.

Edited by Jessica Herrington and Sara Nyhuis