The popular representation of the human heart is two symmetrical arches meeting in a pointed tip. It is blood-red – the colour of arterial blood, not venous blood, which is a darker scarlet. But surprisingly, this Valentine’s heart doesn’t much resemble the organ in our chests. Where does the shape come from? Let’s take a look at the history of the heart in art.
Why was it this specific organ of the human body that acquired such an exceptional place in culture? Is it because we can constantly hear its reliable beat? Because it accelerates when we feel deeply moved and it ‘stops’ when we’re terrified? The heart is popularly understood to be our emotional command centre, the home of love, goodness, or on the contrary – hatred and evil. You can have a good heart or a bad one, after all.
Modern science hasn’t changed this popular understanding of the heart’s role and the brain has never superseded it. Can any of us draw a schematic outline of the brain, and with just a single unbroken line?
So when did this instantly recognizable heart shape first appear? Is it really already found on the walls of Palaeolithic caves?
A mammoth in love
On the northern coast of Spain – in Asturias on the Cantabrian sea – there is a stretch of caves with paintings that date back to the period known as the Upper Palaeolithic period. The most famous is the Altamira, discovered in 1868; a few decades later in the early 20th century, modern man entered the El Pindal cave. It contains paintings of animal outlines. Among them are bison, horses, deer, a fish identified as a salmon, and a woolly mammoth. It is the latter that has become the cave’s calling card. There is a mysterious red stain on its body, which the collective imagination quickly interpreted as a heart. The animal was dubbed the ‘mammoth in love’ and the image itself hailed as the first ever Valentine’s. Let’s leave unanswered the question of whom the prehistoric painter was addressing. The cave was uninhabited, it was a kind of animalistic temple with totemic images of animals. Their creators were probably worshipping the power of the creatures that allowed them to survive. The paintings might have had a magical function – ensuring good luck in their hunts for huge, dangerous animals.
So what is the red stain on the mammoth’s body? It’s hard to be completely sure. It’s not impossible that it was meant to show where the heart was. Prehistoric hunters probably knew that as long as it was beating, the animal was alive. Indicating where to aim and strike in order to kill it quickly was extremely important when hunting. Is it an ‘educational’ depiction left by experienced comrades for young hunters? Or is it a picture of a wound already inflicted by a hunter? A sign of victory during a dangerous hunt, on which the life of the entire community depended?
There is also no shortage of sceptical voices who see the shape resembling a heart as the ruse of an unknown perpetrator. Was someone just laughing at everybody, a bit like Banksy, who in 2005 displayed the so-called Peckham Rock – a lump of concrete with a picture of a figure pushing a shopping trolley – on the wall of the British Museum?
Before the court of Osiris
The function of that prehistoric picture of a heart (if it even is a heart) isn’t clear. But we know a bit more about its depiction in the art of ancient Egypt.
According to the subjects of the Pharaoh, the human heart testified to the owner’s sinlessness and was the ticket to complete happiness in eternal life. They believed that after death, man stands before Osiris and the judgement passed then determines whether he will be immortal. The dead person had to convince the god and his fellow jurors of his sinlessness, and profess in a negative confession that he had never committed any of the 42 major sins. In order to fully convince the judges of his innocence, he called his own heart as witness. He handed his heart to Anubis, who then placed it on some scales. The feather of Maat was placed on the other side. If the scales remained balanced, it meant the dead man was telling the truth. But if the side with the heart was heavier, it meant he was lying. In that case, Anubis would declare the verdict and the perjurer was devoured by the monster Ammit – a hybrid with a crocodile’s head, the body of a lion and backside of a hippopotamus.
But when depicted on these scales, Egyptian hearts don’t have a single established form – sometimes they are symmetrical and very geometric (and some amulets take this form, too), in other cases they look like shapeless pieces of meat. The heart probably acquired its ‘heart-shape’ in Greco-Roman Antiquity. Mosaics decorating private homes and public buildings in Rome used geometric and botanical shapes. There are heart-shaped motifs on some stylized Roman branches. They might be ivy leaves. The Roman anatomist Galen, whose research constituted the principal compendium of anatomical knowledge until the publication of Andreas Vesalius’s On the Fabric of the Human Body in 1543, compared the shape of the heart to an upturned ivy leaf.
There is also a hypothesis whereby the conventional shape of a heart can be found in another plant – in the fruit of the now-extinct silphium. The resin obtained from the roots of this plant was widely used in antiquity as a panacea and a seasoning. It was used to treat warts, restore hair growth, ease migraines, coughs and many other ailments. But the greatest demand for silphium was due to its abortifacient properties – according to ancient authors, silphium preparations ‘regulated periods’. In ancient Rome the substance was incredibly expensive, and was kept in treasuries together with precious metals. The plant probably became extinct because of over-exploitation. The city of Cyrene, capital of Cyrenaica (present-day Libya), had a monopoly over the trade in silphium products. The fruit of the silphium – with its shape resembling a modern-day Valentine’s heart – was found on the back of coins minted in Cyrene in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, and that could be how the image spread. Could it be the specific application of the silphium fruit that associated it with the domain of love?
Allegory pierced by an arrow
The origins of the image of the heart now entrenched in the collective imagination should thus be sought in antiquity. And it was in that shape that it moved into Christian art, in which it was a commonly-used symbol. The heart appeared in religious art in around 1000 CE, as a sign of Christ’s love for people. And in many allegories of caritas, a figure personifying the concept of love and mercy holds a flaming heart.
In the Catholic Church, the cult of the Sacred Heart is particularly important. Its origins date back to the Middle Ages, but it acquired its official form in the 17th century. This was mainly down to the revelations of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a mystic from the Visitation order in Paray-le-Monial, to whom Christ is said to have revealed his heart on several occasions and promised grace to his worshippers. The last revelation took place in 1675, but Rome hesitated for a long time in recognizing them. Finally, and probably because the cult was spreading widely and services were held regardless, it was confirmed by Clement XIII in 1856.
The basilica of the Sacré-Coeur that towers over the Parisian neighbourhood of Montmartre is the most famous church of this Order. A mosaic in the church’s apse depicts Christ with a golden heart on his chest.
Where did hearts pierced by an arrow come from? This popular image, well-known from fences, walls and doodles on the edges of notebooks, also comes from Christian iconography. St. Augustine of Hippo is sometimes shown with various attributes, including a heart, sometimes a burning one, and other times one pierced by an arrow. This motif is also found on the emblem of the Augustinian order. It derives from the words of the saint and his message of love in the Confessions: “Thou hadst pierced our heart with thy love.”
As for Mary, in depictions known as Our Lady of Sorrows, her heart is stabbed by swords. This refers to her suffering as a result of the agony and death of Christ. Each of the seven swords represents one of Mary’s sorrows, including Jesus’ crucifixion and death, and his descent from the cross and burial.
The suffering hearts of lovers
It was at the Burgundy court in the 15th century – not during the Romantic period – that romances were born, with heroes who experienced disappointment in love, their hearts falling sick and bursting from pain. René of Anjou, known as Good King René, was a major patron of the arts. He collected an enormous library of illuminated manuscripts. He himself was the author of at least three works, including Le livre du cœur d’amour épris (The Book of the Love-Smitten Heart) – an allegorical romance, a typical piece for the time about courtly love. A knight by the name of Heart (the personification of love) sets out with Desire in search of his beloved. The tone of the story is rather melancholic: the heroes find the girl but there is no happy ending – rather, it presents numerous love-related disappointments. King René’s romance was illustrated by a brilliant miniaturist, possibly Barthlémy d’Eyck or an anonymous master who has been nicknamed the Master of King René. The manuscript’s 16 illustrations are exceptional; they depict scenes taking place at dawn, dusk and night – something unprecedented in 15th-century art. One of the manuscript’s most famous miniatures shows a love-sick king, lying in his chamber at night. Next to him are the romance’s two main allegorical figures: the knights Heart and Desire. The personification of Love hands the monarch’s sick heart to Desire for the latter to heal it. The king’s heart is large and red, resembling a velvet-covered jewellery box. As it happens, in 15th- and 16th-century courtly culture, many objects were created in the shape of a regular, symmetric heart. These included songbooks, prayer books and maps.
Manuscripts and maps
Among heart-shaped manuscripts, the songbook of Jean de Montchenu stands out. When closed, it is the shape of a single heart; when open, it resembles two hearts joined together at their inner edges. Bound in red velvet, its edges are decorated with gold. This elegant musical manuscript was commissioned by Canon Jean de Montchenu between 1460 and 1477, when he was general curate and chancellor at the court of Jean-Louis de Savoie, Bishop of Geneva.
The parchment pages of the songbook are covered in musical notes, as well as rich embellishments in the margins and miniatures. It contains 43 songs by famous Franco-Flemish composers, some of whom had ties to the court of the Duke of Burgundy, including Guillaume Dufay, Gilles Binchois, Johannes Ockeghem and Antoine Busnois.
This kind of manuscript was exceptionally expensive, not just because of the materials used (parchment, gold, expensive pigments and dyes), but also because of the shape, which required extraordinary craftsmanship to print and illustrate. The shape of the songbook is probably an allusion to the love songs and motets contained in this sophisticated object. Prayer books from the 15th and 16th centuries were also found in this shape: when closed, they looked like an almond; when open, they formed the shape of a heart.
In the 16th century, maps depicting a heart-shaped Earth also became popular. The mathematical basis for such a projection was provided in around 1500 by Johannes Stabius of Vienna, and it was perfected by Johannes Werner, a priest from Nuremberg. The so-called ‘Stabius-Werner Projection’ was used by renowned cartographers of the early modern period: Oronce Finé, Peter Apian, Gerardus Mercator, Abraham Ortelius. The first map drawn according to the Stabius-Werner principles was by Oronce Finé and was created in 1519 for the French king Francis I. Unfortunately, it has not survived. Another of Finé’s maps from 1534–1536 was heart-shaped, of which two copies survive. Finé’s map is presented within an elegant border decorated with architectonic motifs, and the inscription Nova et integra universi orbis descriptio (‘A new and complete description of the world’). Researchers of the history of science and cartography wrangle over whether this vision of the world in the shape of a heart was meant to show what great emotions the world provoked in man and how close it was to him, or whether it was a convenient geometric solution for reflecting the spherical Earth on a two-dimensional surface.
The anatomy of a symbol
It’s impossible to say whether Leonardo da Vinci was the first artist to see a heart. But he was the one who left behind excellent, pioneering drawings of this muscle, documenting the dissections he had carried out. Leonardo studied human hearts, and when he couldn’t access a human corpse, he dissected oxen.
Antonio de Beatis, secretary to Cardinal Luigi of Aragon, wrote an account in his diary of the Cardinal’s visit to Leonardo da Vinci, which took place in October 1517. At that time, Leonardo was living in France as a resident at the court of Francis I. During the discussion, the master admitted to having carried out around 30 dissections of human bodies. But only one is documented. During a stay in Florence, at the turn of 1507 to 1508, in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, Leonardo carried out a dissection of the body of a centenarian, with whom he had spoken before his death.
“And this old man, a few hours before his death, told me that he was over a hundred years old, and that he felt nothing wrong with his body other than weakness. And thus, while sitting on a bed in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, without any movement or sign of any mishap, he passed from this life. And I dissected him to see the cause of so sweet a death. This I found to be a fainting away through lack of blood to the artery which nourishes the heart and the other parts below…”
This seems to be the first description of atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries). For his planned anatomical treatise, Leonardo studied many systems and organs. But his research into the human and cow heart are – according to modern experts – the most brilliant of his scientific investigations. It was Leonardo who reached the conclusion that the heart was at the centre of the vascular system, not the liver, as was previously believed. He drew the organ very accurately and described its chambers, atria, valves, papillary muscles and tendinous cords. He understood that the right side of the heart collected blood from veins, the left pumped it into arteries, and that the valves closed completely. But he didn’t go further into the matter and didn’t describe the principles of blood circulation. This was only done by William Harvey in his treatise Exercitatio anatomica de motu cordis et sanguinis in animalibus in 1628.
Because Leonardo, contrary to his own principles and great confidence in experiments, adjusted his research into the heart to fit the widely-accepted physiology of that organ. Since Galen, the heart had been the source of heat and ‘living breath’ (‘vital force’) in the body. Heat, it was believed, was generated by the constant provision of blood to, and then from, the chambers and atria. In his research, Leonardo got stuck at this impasse.
Among artists with an interest in anatomy, Leonardo was the sole to carry out his experiments in order to understand how the human body works, not just to correctly reproduce its proportions. The Pollaiuolo brothers (whom Leonardo knew from Florence) and Michelangelo were interested in anatomy, or rather in the muscular-skeletal system alone, because it guaranteed them accuracy in their depictions of movement. Leonardo didn’t stop there – his treatise was to be about the nature of humans, the mechanics of the body and the relationship between its structures and the laws of nature.
But Leonardo didn’t revolutionize science or anatomy (his studies in this area were only published in the 19th century) and his insightful drawings of the shape of the heart did not change how that organ was portrayed in art. Nobody needed his precise diagram. As Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska put it so poetically: “But if the heart is just a muscle, what about the beauty of all things?”
The Heart is in the Bin
Can anything counteract the banal superficiality of popular depictions of the heart? Certainly not the work of Jeff Koons, whose giant multicoloured hearts of polished steel topped with a gold bow are found all over renowned museums and galleries. Only their value is astonishing – in 2007 the magenta-coloured Hanging Heart reached a price of $23 million at a Sotheby’s auction.
The works of the secretive British street artist Banksy have also recently achieved high prices at auctions across the world. The artist, who started out in an anarchistic dialogue with city regulations, leaving walls adorned with his reactions to official restrictions and prohibitions, gradually began to use his art to refer to the most painful contemporary political and societal issues.
In 2002 on the steps leading to Waterloo Bridge in London, Banksy placed graffiti showing a girl holding a heart-shaped balloon. He then repeated that motif on numerous occasions in different parts of London, and over time began to support different social and political campaigns, including those with regard to the Syrian refugee crisis. In 2018, a print of Girl with Balloon reached a price at auction in excess of £1 million. But as soon as the hammer fell, the piece was partly shredded right before the bidders’ eyes, by a shredder mounted inside the picture frame. The anonymous buyer still made the transaction, deeming that after its spectacular and only partial destruction, the value of Girl with Balloon would significantly increase. The work was given a new name, Love is in the Bin, and a certificate of authenticity from Banksy. Perhaps it will be sold again in the future, reaching a much higher price than in the first auction.
In September 2019, Banksy wrote to Pia Klemp, the captain of a boat belonging to NGOs: “Hello Pia, I’ve read about your story in the papers. You sound like a badass. I am an artist from the UK and I’ve made some work about the migrant crisis, obviously I can’t keep the money. Could you use it to buy a new boat or something? Please let me know. Well done. Banksy.”
The boat was purchased in 2020 and under a German flag sails the Mediterranean Sea, where it rescues refugees. The famous mural was repeated on the ship’s side – this time the girl is wearing a life jacket and releasing a heart-shaped life-belt into the air.
In the brilliant film Exit through the Gift Shop, Banksy mocked the snobbery of art lovers, who pay huge sums to buy works of dubious quality, but which are slickly promoted and subject to price-fuelling market mechanisms. He currently sells his work for ever-higher prices and donates wealthy collectors’ money for social purposes. Perhaps it would never reach them otherwise.
Translated from the Polish by Zosia Krasodomska-Jones
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