RICHARD LEIGHTON PHOTO

In the Right Place: A lovely thing



By Richard Leighton

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, which means that we’ll be inundated with hearts  everywhere — even on road banners in rural Maine, such as the one in the accompanying photograph. This iconic image isn’t an accurate depiction of a human heart, of course. It has become the international symbol for “love.” But how did this abstract phenomenon come into being?

The short answer is that social historians aren’t sure yet. So far, they have debunked a number of widely held theories. Thus, we apparently can rest assured that the heart image was not inspired by a robust bodice in a tight-waisted dress; or human buttocks; or puckered lips; or female genitals; or courting swans’ necks, or the leaves of ivy or ancient aphrodisiac plants.

The symbol’s conceptual roots seem to be in the extraordinarily original idea that the slimy muscular pump that we call a heart also causes and receives our feelings about other people — “heartfelt,” sometimes “heart-breaking,” feelings. It seems that Aristotle is at least partly to blame here. He first opined that a sensing, emotional “soul” resided in our physical hearts and created desire there.

Poets then associated the physical heart with human love and other strong emotions. Ancient physicians also concluded that the heart was the cause of growth and the body’s healer. From there, it was a short step for later medieval thinkers to theorize that the heart also was the source of our ability to understand the world. However, there was no stylized imagery of such a heart yet, at least none on which historians agree.

But then, Christian thinking and art made an important contribution. About the year 1000, ardent devotees, mostly (but not exclusively) Roman Catholics, began to focus on what became known as “The Sacred Heart of Jesus.” They worshipped the once-physical heart of their savior as a symbol of God’s and Christ’s compassionate love for humanity.

Artists tried to depict this holy heart, but soon realized that an accurate depiction of the organ might be confusing, if not disgusting. They, too, were aware that earlier medical descriptions of the human heart mentioned that it had a “dent” in it. The artists began to simplify the heart, beginning with lumpy, conical, and pear- and strawberry-shaped objects.

Ironically, the mostly symmetrical images of the Sacred Heart were not without their gory aspects: they often depicted the chest of Jesus with an emerging, bleeding heart that was pierced by a crown of thorns and/or a Roman lance. But, heart depictions continued to be stylized into more balanced abstract images in which the dent became a small cleavage atop narrowing halves.

Thus, it was only a matter of inevitable time until the heart was stylized into perfect symmetry in coats of arms, on shields in religious crusades, in romantic literary illustrations of human desire and love, and on pages of Word documents in which the author presses Alt+3 to express love. ♥

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