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Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Heart in Art

The swan mating ritual--
heart shaped, lovely, and romantic, 
but an unlikely source.
As yet one more gift-giving season nears, I'm not going to delve into the well-worn legend of St. Valentine (actually the Catholic church has three saints named Valentine). This blog is mostly about art, not religion, legends, or even love. But art is quite often about symbols, and we all know that the valentine has long had as its symbol what's come to be known as the heart shape. Both in matters of the soul and love, tradition claims the human heart as its home. Why the brain has so long been overlooked in such matters has always been a mystery to me. Maybe the brain needs to get with the beat. Insofar as art is concerned, quite apart from the valentine and all the mushy stuff about love, I've always wondered how the heart shape came to be. I mean, where would valentine art be without the heart shape?
Cyrene coin, 7th century BC.
Theories abound. Some claim the heart shape to be based on the shape of the Silphium seed, dating way back to the 7th century B.C., which was used as a seasoning by the ancient north African Cyrenes and had as one of its side effects apparently some degree of birth control (real or imagined). Okay, that's pretty far-fetched and unprovable, in any case, since the Silphium plant has long been extinct. However, something resembling the heart shape has been found on Cyrene coins. Centuries later, the heart shape seems to have found limited use during medieval times on coats of arms but that tells us little about it origin. Perhaps the most obvious theory might be that the shape was based upon that of the human heart, though if fact, it bears only a slight resemblance. I prefer the suggestion that the heart shape evolved simply through poor draftsmanship, the result of various bans on "open heart surgery" during Medieval times.

The Sacred Heart

It's likely the first broad use of the heart shape began during the 17th century when the Catholic church embraced St. Margaret Mary Alocoque's vision of the heart of Christ encircled by a crown of thorns, which resulted in the Cult of the Sacred Heart. Artists of the times readily adopted and adapted the heart shape (from whatever source), surmounted by a tiny cross, and encircled by the thorns. From that point on, given the philosophical dominance of the heart over the brain, the symbolism took hold and the valentine evolved. During the 18th century, love-struck, upper class maidens, with little else better to do, began crafting handmade artistic confections with red paper hearts and real lace to profess their love for would-be (or could-be) beaus. Though likely welcoming the ladies' affections, they probably thought their graphic design means of expressing it somewhat silly.
Mathematicians have reduced the
heart to an algebraic equation. 
During the 19th century, the heart became the universal symbol in the western world for romantic pursuits (male or female). Then, with the advent of the 20th century and modern day printing techniques, the store-bought valentine took hold. The heart shape moved from the universal to the trite. In art, graphic designers today find themselves saddled with it while serious artists wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot brush. Maybe now we should move on to depictions of the body organ where love really resides--the brain--as a more accurate symbol for our romantic inclinations.

With love in mind.

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