The Heart: A Love Story

We Heart Hearts: A Love Story


Ancient Egyptians likened it to one’s moral compass. The Teotihuacan of ancient Mexico believed it held a spirit that was key to life itself. Ancient Greeks thought it housed a person’s soul and kept their body warm.

Today, the heart is a universal symbol of love and affection. We see its iconography everywhere: in artwork, fashion, advertising--and all over our phone screens. Of all the emojis in our keyboards, there are 29 hearts or actions explained with a heart. No other icon comes close to being duplicated so many times over. It’s clear: we heart hearts. But where did the ❤️ story begin?

Theories have floated from continent to continent, forgotten and revived, passed through centuries like hearts on an eternal string. From what little we can see today, the connection between the human heart and love cemented in the Medieval era, but the scalloped heart shape had use of its own long before and prominence long after.

Silphium – Legend of the Heart-Shaped Plant

A species of giant fennel, silphium grew on the coasts of North Africa. The fragrant herb had many medicinal and practical uses, from cough suppressant to flavor enhancer to aphrodisiac. In the 6th century CE, the ancient Greeks and Romans at the colony Cyrene in Libya were quick to adopt its use for another vital purpose: contraception. The heart-shaped leaves were ground up and ingested as an early form of birth control.

Like any trendy wonder-drug, it wasn’t long before news of its power spread. The Romans grew so obsessed with silphium they stamped silver coins with the plant’s heart-shaped seedpod on one side and the blooming plant on the other. Unfortunately, for those seeking to enact casual romance, silphium could not be cultivated easily, it was a plant untamable, fittingly wild at heart. Roman demand eventually led to the snuff of extinction before the fall of the Roman Empire, and legend has it that Emperor Nero knowingly ingested the last remaining pill.

Sheer scarcity of silphium bolstered the power of its mysterious contraceptive lore; most people couldn’t try the measure for themselves. The idea that an extinct cousin of the fennel plant was effective contraception is most likely ancient urban legend but did the heart-shaped pods and its romantic applications plant the first seeds of this iconic connection? It’s possible.

Medieval Art and Affections

Cut to a more modern time—the Middle Ages. The French love poem, “Le Roman De La Poire,” written by Thibaut in the mid 13th century, is a striking allegory of giving one’s love to another. The illustration accompanying the poem is the earliest known depiction of a person offering his heart to a lover, enshrining the idea that one can give their heart away. While its shape resembles more of a pear than the scalloped version of modern iconography, its regarded as the first known symbolic use of its kind.

By 1400 however, the heart had shifted into the modern icon through Francesco Barberino’s poem “Documenti d’amore” and bold illustration of a naked Cupid shooting arrows and roses while standing on the back of a horse adorned in a scalloped heart wreath. The daring image made rounds, and hearts began to appear on tapestries, playing cards, and other art forms.

“Le don du Coeur” or “The Gift of the Heart,” the early 15th-century tapestry on display at the Louvre portrays a man presenting a small red heart to a woman perched elegantly amid lush greenery. The fanciful tableau spread like wildfire in aristocratic circles, a gallant representation of honorable, courtly love. Meanwhile, Gutenberg’s printing press spurred a revolution in 1440 by making the print medium accessible to the masses. The press launched greater society into literacy, communication burgeoned, and when love was felt, hearts were surely inked.

Rampant depiction commenced in Christian religious art of the time too. Images of Jesus started to show a smoother, brighter symbol, usually anchored atop the chest. The sacred heart exemplified faith, expressed ultimate love and suffering. Martin Luther, writer, theologian and seminal figure of the Protestant Reformation, made the symbol a logo in 1530 with the Luther Seal, the sign of Lutheranism. He explained it best himself, “Such a heart should stand in the middle of a white rose, to show that faith gives joy, comfort, and peace.”

For centuries, expressions through the same scalloped heart blended and bounced between love of all kinds—hearts evoked erotica and fertility, encouraged faith and sacrifice in Christianity, marked terms of service in betrothed aristocrats, and resurrected phallic daydreams with Cupid for the masses. The heart culturally clicked right in time for Leonardo da Vinci’s accurate anatomical drawings in 1498. When science caught up with biology in the Age of Enlightenment, accuracy didn’t matter much in the way people felt or expressed love.

Sentimentality Spurs Consumption

The heart’s biological purpose was well known in the 17th century. English physician William Harvey described the circulatory system in full in 1628 with the treatise “Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus (An Anatomical Exercise on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Living Beings).” But the heart was already more than a pumping organ, it pounded and fluttered with sentimentality. As colonization brought sugar and new varieties of sweet fruits to Europe and the Americas, confectioners pounced on the heart-shaped similarities of strawberries and cherry pairs to promote spending on delicious displays of affection.

Confections first, cards were soon to follow. Valentine’s Day was celebrated with the exchange of handwritten notes for centuries, but the mid-1840s brought mass production of common iconography—cupids and hearts dominated the millions of cards sent each year. As modern culture shifted through the American Civil War, to Reconstruction and Prohibition, cards evolved from prim and quaint to humorous, evocative, and gushy. Hearts still expressed it all.

The heart pulsed and radiated in cartoons, remained aglow on the crucifix, and expanded into mass commercialization. In 1977, Milton Glazer was commissioned to create a marketing campaign for New York state. What could capture the allure of a global metropolis flanked by mountainous splendor, the diversity and possibility of a place vibrating with passion and enthusiasm? The heart of course. With that, the I ♥ NY pictogram was born.

When it comes to love, facts come secondary to feelings. From an anatomical perspective, the heart may not have much to do with our emotional state, but at this point, it sure feels right, doesn’t it? Maybe people 1000 years from now will have new iconography for love, something curly and brain-like, but with brand power this strong it’s hard to imagine anything else.