The Heart in Art
The most symbolic organ of all has enjoyed a prominent presence in the history of art, religion, and mysticism. These are some of its most beautiful representations.
Muscle and metaphor, word and object; whether it’s a religious emblem, a Valentine, or a text message, the heart has a preponderant archetypal place in our psyche. In fact, it’s the only human organ consistently represented in nearly every aspect of imagery. Its multiple graphic representations, like its symbolism, speak in an almost primitive language, of the emotional and spiritual life of humankind.
The oldest known representations of the heart date from the Ice Age, but throughout history numerous cultures —the Egyptian (for whom the heart was a repository of knowledge), the Greek, the Roman, and even Native American people— considered it a vital organ, sustaining life, the home of the soul or the spirit.
Medieval Europe saw a transformation of the symbol of the heart, in part, due to the innumerable references to the organ in the Bible. From the year 1000 CE, the heart appeared in Christian representations as a symbol of the love of Christ, nearly always emitting luminous rays, and sometimes, marked by wounds symbolizing suffering prior to death. During this period, the heart could often be found in heraldry, a symbol of clarity and truth, and often, of the Holy Grail. Especially during the Crusades, the practice of burying the heart separately from the body came into widespread acceptance. A warrior who’d died away from home might have only his heart sent home. The practice is reflective of the heart’s place in the body as one of the most essential parts (a container of essence). Lastly, during this period, the heart was also regarded as a sort of talisman.
It only in the 18th century that the heart became a romantic symbol, synonymous with and home to feelings of love. The protagonist of Valentines and other paraphernalia related to St. Valentine’s Day and thus to lovers.
Some experts and scholars of symbols speculate that it was the heart’s form that generated its relationship with love. Such theories maintain that the heart’s silhouette is similar to that of an ivy leaf, which was a symbol of fidelity. Others relate it to the form of the silphium, a plant that’s extinct today but which had edible and medicinal uses (as a contraceptive, mostly) in the Greek and Latin worlds. Others believe that the symbolism of the heart was born with the writings of Aristotle, popular in the Middle Ages, on the anatomy of the heart. The philosopher pointed out that the organ had three chambers with an indentation in the center.
Today we know that the organ (with its infinite metaphysical properties) is not where our emotions occur. It’s curious that it’s been designated the container of human feeling at their brightest and at their darkest: still the heart can be broken, offered, turned over, heavy with emotion, at times can be courageous and pure, and a part of it may even belong to others.
This small collection of representations of the human heart was shared by The Public Domain Review:
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