I’ve rather fallen in love with a wallcovering pattern which is a scattering of scribbled hearts. Their laid back imprecision is what makes them somehow lovelier than their perfectly symmetrical counterparts. And somehow radiating more genuine affection. They’re thinner, one half invariably a little longer than the other while the ends don’t quite connect. And love is all around. I want to clad my kitchen in them – it is the heart of my home, where everyone gathers while spaghetti mixes with carbonara sauce, white wine pours and suddenly everyone has a lot to say about everything. Or I might cover a part of my bathroom wall in them, or the wall behind my bed – intimate spaces where a cosy touch would be welcome. But they’ve got me thinking – these modern hearts looking like they’ve been poured out of a jar in the organic section in the supermarket. Where did the heart shape come from? How did we all agree that this scalloped shape with one pointed end and another with a dent in the middle was the symbol of love? Placing one at the end of a sentence makes everything ok. No. Makes everything sing. I did some digging and ended up in the 13th century.
We didn’t always believe the heart was where love resided. There was a time the symbol was merely decorative until one day it was decided the heart is where we stored our memories, especially where God’s commands were inscribed. Tales of female saints having their hearts cut open to reveal inscriptions showing their love for God went viral. An idea which morphed into another big idea: the heart was the seat of romantic love.
The thing is there is some actual anatomical similarity between the ideograph and the organ. The 4 chambers do bear some resemblance to the iconic shape. But it’s closer to the hearts of birds or reptiles – which makes weird and perfect sense as in the olden days anatomists were banned by the Catholic Church from dissecting humans and cut open animals instead.
It’s that little dent in the middle that made the heart the shape that makes us swoon today. When did it appear? We have, of course, the French to thank. There’s a medieval French love poem written some time in 1255 – Le Roman de la Poire – The Romance of the Pear which is accompanied by an an early crude depiction of something that could be a heart if you squint a bit and shut one eye. It is from this moment that the idea of giving away one’s heart as one would a pear begins. But still, no dent. We’re still looking at a pear.
It takes almost a hundred years for the dent to appear. It does so as in the 14th century as St Valentine’s heart. And it takes the Italians to do that.
In a medieval Italian poem, Documenti d’Amore by Francesco Barberino, there is an illustration of a naked cupid balancing on the back of a galloping horse. It aims arrows and roses at passers by. And hearts. It is after this that there was no stopping the heart shape. From here it really flew and began to appear in the visual arts.
A less fun theory suggests the symbol can be traced back to the seed of an ancient medicinal plant called silphium. It has been extinct since the 1st century and had birth control properties. Silphium was abundantly grown on the Greek colony of Cyrene on the North African coastline. Very popular with the Greeks and the Romans, this seed apparently was heart shaped. Images of it on ancient coins confirms that.
There are still other origin stories. One more being that the ancient philosophers, notably Aristotle and Galen had described the the human heart as an organ with 3 chambers and a dent in the middle. Later middle age scientist based their drawings of the heart based on these presumptions. These drawings along with the idea that the heart was the seat of human love led to the spread of the heart symbol.
And we know them today. One of the most powerful and commonly used symbols. The world over. The next time you sign off a text message with a heart symbol know you are carrying on a tradition that goes all the way back to the 13th century.