Candy, cupids, and flowers converge every Valentine’s Day with stylized imagery of the human heart as the ultimate symbol of all things romantic. But the organ has also inspired gruesome lore and blood-drenched iconography that extend well beyond the realm of corporation-spawned sweetness and light. In The Book of Hearts (Laurence King), author Francesa Gavin offers an illustrated history that traces the way artists, designers and scientists have diagrammed the human organ for their own purposes.
She tells Co.Create, “Most of the imagery in the book is far from sentimental. The heart can be interpreted as dark, passionate, painful, bloody, emotive, sweet, playful. It’s been seen at different times as the home of the soul, the divine, the erotic, the rational center of thought. Those many meanings make it visually ripe for reinvention.”
The Book of Hearts also reports on why today’s perfectly symmetrical, precision dovetailed heart image bears only a passing resemblance to the actual organ. “The shape we know today was originally a decorative motif for a stylized ivy leaf,” Gavin says. Depicted in the Middle Ages as a curved, open-topped jar that held blood, the base and ivy leaf forms morphed. “That heart shape spread with the rise of the printing press, on playing cards, in books and in Catholic devotional imagery.”
As chronicled in The Book of Hearts, here’s a brief Valentine’s Day history of heart-shaped iconography.
When Titans dismembered the child god Dionysus and boiled his flesh, they ate everything but the heart. When the boy’s father Zeus zapped the Titans, the God of pleasure, intoxication and ecstasy was reborn, heart intact.
St. Augustine of Hippo in his Confessions describes the heart not as a pleasure chest but as the acorn-shaped vessel that enables man to know God. In the centuries that followed Christian altarpieces, illustrations and paintings transformed the Eros’ arrows of into rib-piercing spears..
Hearts, or more precisely, the removal of hearts, played a crucial role in Aztec rituals as a way to postpone the end of the world through human sacrifice. Living victims were placed on slabs at the pinnacle of Aztec pyramids. There, priest cut their chests open with a flint knife, removed their hearts and offer the organs to the sun Gods.
Not only did Canterbury Tales author Geoffrey Chaucer earn credit as the father of English Literature–he also essentially invented Valentine’s Day. In his Old English Parlement of Foules poem honoring King Richard II’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia, birds, not hearts, played the starring role. Translated from Old English, he wrote “For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” The conceit went viral: If birds courted in February, so why not humans?
Charles, Duke of Orléans wrote the first love letter to mention the V word, inspired by the gloomiest of circumstance. He sent the note to his wife while she was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The Duke wrote, “I am already sick with love, My very gentle Valentine.”
Two days after Christmas in 1673, French Saint Marguerite-Marie Alacoque entertained a vision of the Sacred Heart surrounded by a crown of thorns. She then tried to heal the poor by kissing their sores and drinking their pus. Painted hearts punctured with spears became the key graphic for Jesuits that propogated the are the cult of the Sacred Heart.
American Esther Howland in 1849 designed the first commercial Valentine, embellishing the cards with lace, colored paper, satin and silk. By the early 1900s, the heart accompanied by a plump cupid became the Valentine’s Day graphic of choice.
Edgar Allen Poe dramatized the notion of the heart as a cauldron of guilt in his 1843 in his Tell-Tale Heart short story and Goth culture has embraced the dark side ever since. Gavin observes an uptick in anti-sentimental heart graphics since 9/11 among tattoo artists, graphic designers and illustrators. She says “The popularity of the heart as a visual image definitely coincided with the rise of gothic imagery post 9/11–as with skulls, blackness, horror and anything that could manifest discomfort and fear.”
Check out the gallery above for a sampling contemporary artists’ interpretations of the heart.