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A Matter of Heart: Where We Got the Heart Shape

Published on Feb. 17, 2021

From a very young age, we all become familiar with the iconic heart shape. From chalky Valentine’s candies to Instagram posts to “I Heart New York” T-shirts and beyond, this enduring symbol of love has grown throughout the ages to be one of the most recognizable icons today.

But where did we get the heart shape? And when did we decide it means love?

While there is much discussion among scholars about the heart shape’s original meanings, most generally agree that the shape itself was common toward the end of the Middle Ages, around the 14th century. During this time, the heart shape appears in art depicting new popular ideas, like the new concept of “courtly love” (“pledging one’s heart” to another).

In fact, it’s during the Middle Ages when the heart really takes off in Medieval culture. Aside from the heart shape, it’s around this time that we see words like “hearty” and phrases like “heartbroken” pop up in the English language. It’s also during this period that we see hearts showing up in less conventional places, like on a deck of cards, where it has enjoyed a reliable home ever since.

However, even as far back as the 2nd century A.D., the Roman philosopher and physician Galen described the heart shape in his work, On the Usefulness of the Parts of Body, although his description differs widely from today’s friendly two-lobed shape. Galen’s “heart” looked more like a pinecone (or, as artwork up to the Middle Ages seems to show, a chicken cutlet).

The people of ancient Cyrene, before Galen’s time, imprinted their coins with a shape that looks strikingly like the heart shape we recognize today, and scholars generally agree that this shape comes from silphium seed, a plant that was very valuable and widely traded at that time.

Later on, the Roman Catholic Church adopted the heart shape and displayed it prominently in religious iconography (e.g., The Sacred Heart). One notable difference in the Catholic use of the heart shape is that it typically includes a stem (the aorta) arising from the middle of the shape, between the two lobes, making this a slightly more anatomically correct depiction of the organ than either Galen’s description or the one familiar to us today. In Catholic iconography, the heart symbolizes religious love and devotion, a departure from the Middle Ages’ understanding of it as standing for romantic or courtly love.

Today, we associate the heart shape with romantic love (think Valentine’s Day cards and gifts), but its meaning has broadened to include concepts like heart health (e.g., the American Heart Association’s “heart-healthy” symbol on food packaging) and a general affinity for something (e.g., emojis or “liking” a post on social media).

The heart symbol and its association with love has ancient roots and has changed through time, but since at least the Middle Ages, its core understanding as an expression of devotion has remained more or less the same.

Whatever shape the heart as a symbol takes from here on out, it’s up to us to make sure it continues to mean kindness and love for each other – wholeheartedly.

February is Heart Month