Countless nations around the world can claim at least a vague familiarity with the heart shape, or heart symbol, that has become so intertwined with modern pop culture. Like so many other symbols, the heart and its recognition transcend the barriers of age, gender, language, and more. So examining the origins of such a universal ideograph should be quite simple, but as it turns out, is actually exceedingly difficult.
To trace the evolution of the shape itself, you first need to cast a wider net than just love and bodily organs. In the past, mankind enjoyed a deeper connection with nature, and like many familiar forms, the heart is entangled with classical depictions of organic shapes that are found there. If you look at the artwork of the Renaissance and several styles predating it, you’ll notice a number of plants that are depicted with heart-shaped leaves or pods. Included are certain types of ivy, fig trees, taro, clover, and of course the much-encumbered silphium plant.
The use of silphium seed as a form of birth control in ancient Rome has often been sighted as the true origin of the heart symbol’s inextricable interweaving with love and romance. Roman currency has even been unearthed baring heart-shaped markings which are believed to be interpretations of the shapely silphium pod.
In the 1970s the first merchandise in the United States was released baring the logo of “I ♥ NY,” an idiom that translates to “I Love New York,” meaning of course that one enjoyed their stay in New York City. From there, the interchangeability of the words “love” and “heart” began to truly blossom. Following a boost in popularity at the turn of the century, the largely image-based social media plexus called We Heart It officially launched in 2008, creating a network of users sharing imagery that they love or enjoy.
Another place where hearts have become a major fixture is in modern tattoo art, particularly what’s known as the “sacred heart.” This is traditionally a Christian religious symbol, and in it’s true form is a reference to the divine love of either Jesus or the Virgin Mary. Although many variations exist, the most common will include either a heart symbol or anatomical heart, enflamed and encircled by a crown of thorns. Those that adhere to the Roman Catholic roots of the imagery may also include wounds in the heart or drops of blood, and occasionally rays of light and/or a cross.
In more recent years the symbolism behind the sacred heart has come to include not necessarily religious suffering, but pain in general as it relates to both platonic and romantic love. This shift has aligned the perceptions that follow the symbology more directly with popular imagery of broken hearts, or those that are cracked, stitched, or covered with band aids.
With so many different, unique uses for the heart shape, it’s pretty much impossible to assign just one the most relevance, and just like everything else borne of social and intellectual interaction, our perceptions are surely in a constant state of flux anyway. The one thing that we can be sure is in the heart’s future though, is a continuing enjoyment of its trademark niche, at the forefront of our thoughts, and the center of our being.