If humankind weren’t reigned by feelings and emotion, this little symbol wouldn’t have conquered the world. The idea that the heart is the seat of emotion seems to be as old as mankind itself, and with very few cultural exceptions, the heart is regarded worldwide as the most important organ.
At the Council of Vienna in 1311, the church discussed the question of whether the soul of a human being resides only in the heart or in the complete body. It concluded that the soul lives in the whole body, but maybe it is our habit of identifying with our emotions that makes the heart so important to us.
From its origin, the heart symbol as we know it today had multiple meanings. From spiritual devotion to romantic love and even lesser feelings, the heart symbol was established as an icon that is globally understood and gives form to human passion and basic needs.
Rooted in Botany
The original form of the heart symbol is derived from plants. The ivy leaf was used as decoration in the old days of oriental cultures, where it showed up on amphorae and other painted ceramics after 3000 B.C. Adopted by the Greeks and later by the Etruscans and Romans, it entered European culture.
On Greek vases it can be found as stylized vine tendrils, often connected with the god of vine, Dionysus, who represented the passionate and sensual aspects of human life. So it carried mixed connotations already in its early stages when it appeared in the fourth century A.D. as a sign for a brothel in Ephesus.
The noble side of its meaning developed when this ivy leaf was used in the decoration of tombs. As the ivy is a very long-living and enduring plant, it served as a perfect representation of love and remembrance that goes beyond the grave. It’s also argued that the way ivies grow close on something represented a loving embrace and fidelity.
Therefore the ivy leaf appeared on Greek and Roman gravestones and on early Christian graves in catacombs as a symbol of eternal love.
The green leaf had already undergone a long journey and absorbed these meanings when the shift to today’s red playing card heart happened.
The Middle Ages’ literature and courtly love is chiefly responsible for this. Inspired by antique illustration, the monastic illustrators gave the green leaf a new color—red. On pictures of couples a Tree of Life with heart-shaped leaves began to appear in the color of blood and love, giving it a more physical connotation. This paved the way to finally take the leaf as a symbol for the heart.
Yet the most interesting thing is that this transformation of the lovely leaf into the symbol for the human organ itself was supported by a lack of anatomical knowledge.
The Medical Information Gap
It was the time of the so-called scholastic medicine (about 850- 1200 A.D.), which was in principle performed according to written records and under heavy religious restrictions. As the church dictated, the human body must stay untouched for resurrection, so autopsies were taboo. Even surgery, for a long time, was condemned. So nobody really knew what a human heart looked like, and in this gap of information the little symbol jumped in and was welcomed in anatomy books to replace the real heart.
It took doctors and artists another couple of centuries to clarify this point. Even in the early anatomical drawings of Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci you will find hearts that are a mix between the playing card heart and the real form. Later Leonardo managed to draw it correctly.
A fresco by Giotto di Bondone in the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padua depicts an allegory of Charity giving her heart to heaven, and she is holding an anatomical heart with blood vessels. This was painted between 1304 and 1306. It was made possible by the city’s advanced scientists who were already able to perform legal autopsies at that time.
In countless other depictions, artists decided that because of the playing card heart’s high recognition value, it would be used mostly for spiritual and erotic subjects.
The heart symbol was promoted widely by the Sacred Heart cult, starting in the Middle Ages, and last but not least in the standardized playing card deck that became common after the Renaissance. Oddly enough, it seems that no one has ever argued for the exclusive right to use it or about opposing ideas that the users communicated. It was probably the perfect design that made the heart symbol a favorite for everybody and pushed its export from European culture into the rest of the world.
This story was cordially supported by Cardiology Professor Dr. Arnim Dietz from Germany, who wrote two theme related books and is an expert of the European heart burial tradition. To learn more, please see his website: www.heartsymbol.com