The History of the Heart Icon

Around February 14th, each year, red and pink hearts start popping up all around like a vicious pubescent zit breakout. Whether you love them or hate them; there is no denying the little hearts are ever growing in prolificacy. Arguably the single most recognizable symbol, it is an ideograph representing the heart as the center of emotion an romantic love. Any quick image google shows, however, that the heart inside the human body looks nearly nothing like the symbol we all recognize so where did this image come from?

The heart symbol dates back as far as the 12th century and probably earlier than that but "It didn’t mean love before the 13th and 14th centuries," says Eric Jager, author of The Book of the Heart. The shape began as a meaningless decorative shape used on enamels and tapestries. The idea of romantic love , as we know it today, began to take shape in the medieval period. With that idea came a symbolism which artists used to represent it.

Modern science tells us; the brain is more the originator of feeling than the heart. However, in the medieval times, the heart was thought of as a place where feelings and memory were written. It makes sense that a symbol based off the heart would come to be synonymous with love and romance. The shape is linked to actual hearts. According to Medical Illustrator Carlos Machado; the symbol looks more like the heart of a reptile than a human. Because the catholic church did not allow the dissection of human bodies in the middle ages; few people would have known what an actual human heart looked like. The reptile heart may have been an artist's best reference for a heart image.

Even in the middle ages the heart representation was not quite what it is today. The indentation at the top was less pronounced and "the pine-cone-shaped heart was represented with a rounded base," says Pierre Vinken, the former co-chairman of the company that publishes the medical journal The Lancet. "It was only during the early years of the 14th century that the scalloped shape of the St. Valentine heart, with a fold or dent in the base, made its appearance."

The scalloped heart showed up first in Documenti d'amore; an illustrated poem by Francesco Barberino. After this widely popular image circulated; the heart symbol started appearing regularly in other artist depictions of love. This heart, however, still had a rounded bottom.

The pointed bottom and scalloped top we recognize now appeared 150 years later, in the early 15th century. A tapestry entitled "Le don du Coeur" or "The Gift of the Heart" depicts a man holding a small red heart . The tapestry, now at the Louvre, became among the most popular representations of the proper or "courtly love" of European aristocratic courts.

Le don du Coeur

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