Shot through the [symbol of courtly love and religious devotion] heart...

and you're to blame. Yes, you.

Valentine's Day is coming up, when we remember and give thanks for two early Christians in Rome, both named Valentine, both martyred for their beliefs. You don't do that? Maybe you write saccharine poetry to the object of your unrequited love? No? Perhaps you buy a card and some candy, make reservations somewhere fancy or make a nice meal, and use the day to test the waters or reaffirm your love. And all of it--the cards, the candy, the poems, the napkins and candles, the ill-advised matching tattoos--is covered in little red hearts. Why?

It seems obvious, right? The heart is the physical seat of our emotions. It's the tell-tale organ that gives lie to our calm composure, regardless of whether our heart is bursting with the excitement of love, or breaking under corrected expectations. The heart soars, it plummets, it races along, and it aches, all in time with our lives of love. The heart, as symbol of that love, is the OG emoji. How OG? The earliest appearances of the stylized heart are from the middle ages--the hearts from playing cards and the sacred heart. Playing cards had been around since before the year 1000, but only made their way to Europe in the mid-1300s. The cards we use today are based on the version that became popular in France, and those had symbols taken from the world of the court, knights, and chivalry: kings and queens, jokers, diamonds, clubs, spades and hearts. The sacred heart shows up in Christian iconography around the same time, although in a slightly more anatomically-correct version--shaped a little more like a real heart, and often with some blood to recall Christ's wounds (and, in my experience, to frighten and/or fascinate children). I feel like this is the more obvious route to the heart being the symbol of love, and as one of the most ubiquitous icons in a widespread belief system, it's meaning is understood by many. Devotion is devotion, right?

Don't take my word for it, though; others have done a much better job of explaining this, namely Bruce Forbes in his America's Favorite Holidays. This book is a little gem if you like learning the history behind the days we celebrate. Also look for the brand new The Amorous Heart: An Unconventional History of Love by Marilyn Yalom, which delves deep into the history of the heart as symbol.

Recent News


"Saccharine"--one of my favorite words about mushy gushiness. Thanks for the history lesson!

Add new comment