The Origin of the Heart Symbol

Posted on February 12, 2015 by Mary Hood | 0 Comments

 The Origin of The Heart Symbol | BMJ Blog

The heart shape is one of the most beloved symbols in our culture. As youngsters, many of us tried (often in vain) to cut the perfect heart shape from red construction paper. Years later, we left little notes to our sweethearts and signed it with a heart beside our name. Maybe that hand-drawn heart was even pierced with an arrow. (Cupid was here!)

We use this simple shape to symbolize fairly complex concepts and emotions. Not only does the heart stand for the organ beating in our chests, it represents our emotional center—as well as an emotion itself: love, of course, often romantic. But where did the heart symbol come from?

The first known depiction of a heart appears in a mid-13th century illustration, pictured below, in which a man hands his heart to his belle. Looking at the image closely, the heart is “upside down” with the point facing upwards. Also, at this point in heart history, the shape doesn’t quite resemble the scalloped heart we know today. It wasn’t until the 14th century that the heart took its now-familiar shape.

Given that the medieval period (5th – 15th centuries) was characterized by deep-running religious influences, the heart symbol didn’t merely represent secular, romantic love, it was also featured in religious paintings, including those depicting the wounds of Christ. Thus, the heart evoked all facets of love, from amorous to spiritual.

 The Origin of the Heart Symbol | BMJ Blog

 Illustration from Romaine de la Poire.

The Origin of the Heart Symbol | BMJ Blog

By the 15th century, a red heart was used on playing cards.
1540s German deck of playing cards
By the 19th century, the heart symbol was commonly used on Valentine’s Day cards, a tradition we still hold dear. When the “I ❤ NY” came out in 1977, the heart symbol acquired another layer of meaning; in English, to “heart” something or someone is to love them, which makes the heart a logogram (a pictorial depiction of a word).
The Origin of the Heart Symbol | BMJ Blog
"Pity a poor wounded heart."
St. Valentine's Day card from the 1870s.

 The Origin of the Heart Symbol | BMJ Blog

Not all heart symbols are perfectly symmetrical.

Many have posited theories about why the heart symbol is shaped like it is. After all, it doesn’t really look like the actual organ. While no one can be completely sure, there are some interesting ideas out there. Some say that the heart was inspired by the curves of the female body. Others suggest that it looks Cupid’s broad arrowhead. Finally, some note that two human hearts placed facing each other resemble the heart symbol.

 The Origin of the Heart Symbol | BMJ Blog

What do you think inspired the heart symbol?


Photos: Dorte via Flickr, Wikipedia, Mary Hood, Coletree via Flickr

Posted in fun, holidays, informational, romantic, valentine's day



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