Heart (symbol)

This article is about the graphical symbol. For the symbolic or metaphorical use of the word, see Heart § Symbolism. For other uses, see Heart (disambiguation).
Conventional heart symbol
A heart symbol pierced with an arrow, symbolizing romantic love (being lovestruck, or the pain of lovesickness)
A typical depiction of the Sacred Heart (often shown with other attributes, e.g. surmounted by a cross, pierced by nails or swords, etc.)
An animated beating heart

The heart shape () is an ideograph used to express the idea of the "heart" in its metaphorical or symbolic sense as the center of emotion, including affection and love, especially (but not exclusively) romantic love.

The "wounded heart" indicating love sickness came to be depicted as a heart symbol pierced with an arrow (Cupid's), or heart symbol "broken" in two or more pieces.


Earliest use

The earliest known visual depiction of a heart symbol, as a lover hands his heart to the beloved lady, in a manuscript of the Roman de la poire, mid-13th century.
Andrea Pisano's Charity (c. 1337), holding a heart in her right hand.

The combination of the heart shape and its use within the heart metaphor developed at the end of the Middle Ages. With possible early examples or direct predecessors in the 13th to 14th century, the familiar symbol of the heart representing love developed in the 15th century, and became popular in Europe during the 16th.[1] Before the 14th century, the heart shape was not associated with the meaning of the heart metaphor. The geometric shape itself is found in much earlier sources, but in such instances does not depict a heart, but typically foliage: in examples from antiquity fig leaves, and in medieval iconography and heraldry typically the leaves of ivy and of the water-lily.

The first known depiction of a heart as a symbol of romantic love dates to the 1250s. It occurs in a miniature decorating a capital 'S' in a manuscript of the French Roman de la poire (National Library FR MS. 2086, plate 12). In the miniature a kneeling lover (or more precisely, an allegory of the lover's "sweet gaze" or douz regart) offers his heart to a damsel. The heart here resembles a pine cone (held "upside down", the point facing upward), in accord with medieval anatomical descriptions. However, in this miniature what suggests a heart shape is only the result of a lover's finger superimposed on an object; the full shape outline of the object is partly hidden, and therefore unknown. Moreover, the French title of the manuscript that features the miniature translates into "Novel Of The Pear" in English. Thus the heart shaped object would be a pear; the conclusion that a pear represents a heart is dubious. Opinions therefore differ over this being the first depiction of a heart as symbol of romantic love.[2] Giotto in his 1305 painting in the Scrovegni Chapel (Padua) shows an allegory of charity handing her heart to Christ, this heart is also depicted in the pine cone shape based on anatomical descriptions of the day (still held "upside down"). Giotto's painting exerted considerable influence on later painters, and the motive of Caritas offering a heart is shown by Taddeo Gaddi in Santa Croce, by Andrea Pisano on the bronze door of the south porch of the Baptisterium in Florence (c. 1337), by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Palazzo Publico in Siena (c. 1340) and by Andrea da Firenze in Santa Maria Novella in Florence (c. 1365). The convention of showing the heart point upward switches in the late 14th century and becomes rare in the first half of the 15th century.[2]

The "scalloped" shape of the now-familiar heart symbol, with a dent in its base, arises in the early 14th century, at first only lightly dented, as in the miniatures in Francesco Barberino's Documenti d'amore (before 1320). A slightly later example with a more pronounced dent is found in a manuscript from the Cistercian monastery in Brussels (MS 4459–70, fol 192v. Royal Library of Belgium). The convention of showing a dent at the base of the heart thus spread at about the same time as the convention of showing the heart with its point downward.[3] The modern indented red heart has been used on playing cards since the late 15th century.[4]

Various hypotheses attempted to connect the "heart shape" as it evolved in the late medieval period with instances of the geometric shape in antiquity.[5] Such theories are modern, proposed from the 1960s onward, and they remain speculative, as no continuity between the supposed ancient predecessors and the late medieval tradition can be shown. Specific suggestions include: the shape of the seed of the silphium plant, used in ancient times as an herbal contraceptive,[5][6] and stylized depictions of features of the human female body, such as the female's buttocks, pubic mound, or spread vulva.[7]

Renaissance and early modern

Hearts can be seen on the bible Jesus holds in the Empress Zoe mosaic in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It probably dates from 1239.

Mosaic of the Empress Zoe in the Hagia Sophia, 1239

Hearts can also be seen on various stucco reliefs and wall panels excavated from the ruins of Ctesiphon, the Persian capital (circa 90 BC – 637 AD).[8][9][10]

The Luther rose was the seal that was designed for Martin Luther at the behest of Prince John Frederick, in 1530, while Luther was staying at the Coburg Fortress during the Diet of Augsburg. Luther wrote an explanation of the symbol to Lazarus Spengler: "a black cross in a heart, which retains its natural color, so that I myself would be reminded that faith in the Crucified saves us. 'For one who believes from the heart will be justified' (Romans 10:10)."[11]

The aorta remains visible, as a protrusion at the top centered between the two "chambers" indicated in the symbol, in some depictions of the Sacred Heart well into the 18th century, and is partly still shown today (although mostly obscured by elements such as a crown, flames, rays, or a cross) but the "hearts" suit did not have this element since the 15th century.

The heart symbol reached Japan with the Nanban trade of 1543 to 1614, as evidenced by an Edo period Samurai helmet (dated c. 1630), which includes both the rounded and indented forms of the heart symbol, representing the heart of Marishiten, goddess of archers.[12]


Since the 19th century, the symbol has often been used on St. Valentine's Day cards, candy boxes, and similar popular culture artifacts as a symbol of romantic love.

The use of the heart symbol as a logograph for the English verb "to love" derives from the use in "I ♥ NY," introduced in 1977.[13]

Heart symbols were used to symbolize "health" or "lives" in video games; influentially so in The Legend of Zelda (1986). Super Mario Bros. 2 (1987, 1988) had a "life bar" composed of hexagons, but in 1990s remakes of these games, the hexagons were replaced by heart shapes. Since the 1990s, the heart symbol has also been used as an ideogram indicating health outside of the video gaming context, e.g. its use by restaurants to indicate heart-healthy nutrient content claim (e.g. "low in cholesterol"). A copyrighted "heart-check" symbol to indicate heart-healthy food was introduced by the American Heart Association in 1995.[14]


"Heart field" or "heart shield" are terms for an inescutcheon placed en surtout.

The earliest heart-shaped charges in heraldry appear in the 12th century; the hearts in the coat of arms of Denmark go back to the royal banner of the kings of Denmark, in turn based on a seal used as early as the 1190s. However, while the charges are clearly heart-shaped, they did not in origin depict hearts, or symbolize any idea related to love. Instead they are assumed to have depicted the leaves of the water-lily. Early heraldic heart-shaped charges depicting the leaves of water-lilies are found in various other designs related to territories close to rivers or a coastline (e.g. Flags of Frisia).

Inverted heart symbols have been used in heraldry as stylized testicles (coglioni in Italian) as in the canting arms of the Colleoni family of Milan.[15]

A seal attributed to William, Lord of Douglas (of 1333) shows a heart shape, identified as the heart of Robert the Bruce. The authenticity of this seal is "very questionable",[16] i.e. it could possibly date to the late 14th or even the 15th century.[17]

Heraldic charges actually representing hearts became more common in the early modern period, with the Sacred Heart depicted in ecclesiastical heraldry, and hearts representing love appearing in bourgeois coats of arms. Hearts also later became popular elements in municipal coats of arms.


A common emoticon for the heart is <3. In Unicode several heart symbols are available:

Glyph Description HTML code Alt codes
U+2661 WHITE HEART SUIT &#x2661; or &#9825;
U+2665 BLACK HEART SUIT &#x2665; or &#9829; or &hearts; Alt + 3
U+2764 HEAVY BLACK HEART &#x2764;

And from the Miscellaneous Symbols and Pictographs range associated with emoji:

Glyph Description HTML code
🎔 U+1F394 HEART WITH TIP ON THE LEFT &#x1f394;
💑 U+1F491 COUPLE WITH HEART &#x1f491;
💓 U+1F493 BEATING HEART &#x1f493;
💔 U+1F494 BROKEN HEART &#x1f494;
💕 U+1F495 TWO HEARTS &#x1f495;
💖 U+1F496 SPARKLING HEART &#x1f496;
💗 U+1F497 GROWING HEART &#x1f497;
💘 U+1F498 HEART WITH ARROW &#x1f498;
💙 U+1F499 BLUE HEART &#x1f499;
💚 U+1F49A GREEN HEART &#x1f49a;
💛 U+1F49B YELLOW HEART &#x1f49b;
💜 U+1F49C PURPLE HEART &#x1f49c;
💝 U+1F49D HEART WITH RIBBON &#x1f49d;
💞 U+1F49E REVOLVING HEARTS &#x1f49e;
💟 U+1F49F HEART DECORATION &#x1f49f;

In Code page 437, the original character set of the IBM PC, the value of 3 (hexadecimal 03) represents the heart symbol. This value is shared with the non-printing ETX control character, which overrides the glyph in many contexts.

The Unicode character of the letter ghan of the Georgian alphabet () has seen some use as a surrogate heart symbol in online communication.


A number of parametrisations of approximately heart-shaped curves have been described. The best-known of these is the cardioid, which is an epicycloid with one cusp;[19]though as the cardioid lacks the point, it may be seen as a stylized water-lily leaf, a so-called seeblatt, rather than a heart. Other curves, such as the implicit curve (x2+y2−1)3−x2y3=0, may produce better approximations of the heart shape.[20]

A cardioid generated by a rolling circle
Implicit heart curve
(x2 + y2 − 1)3 − x2y3 = 0
Parametric plot of the curve

Implicit heart surface
Simple form made from two perpendicular lines and two circular arcs.

See also


General references

Inline citations

  1. Kemp (2011), 96–99.
  2. 1 2 Vinken (2001).
  3. Vinken (2001): "The change from the spherical to the scalloped form of the heart base happened more or less in train with the differing way in which the heart was held, and has dominated visual representations of the heart ever since."
  4. A Breef History of Playing Cardes, by Charles Knutson, Renaissance Magazine 2001
  5. 1 2 The Shape of My Heart: Where did the ubiquitous Valentine's symbol come from? by Keelin McDonell, Slate.com, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2007.
  6. Sowing the seeds of love, The Age, by Luke Benedictus, February 12, 2006; use as contraceptive: Pliny the Elder, XXII, Ch. 49
  7. proposed by Gloria Steinem in the 1998 introduction to the Vagina Monologues online copy; "For example, the shape we call a heart—whose symmetry resembles the vulva far more than the asymmetry of the organ that shares its name—is probably a residual female genital symbol. It was reduced from power to romance by centuries of male dominance.", based on an earlier suggestion by Tanzer (1969) that the shape was used as a symbol indicating brothels in ancient Pompeii). Tanzer (1969). The Common People of Pompeii. A study of the graffiti. With illustrations and a map
  8. Roundel with radiating palmettes. (n.d.). Retrieved April 7, 2015, from http://metmuseum.org/exhibitions/view?exhibitionId={60853040-AE7E-4162-8FA7-525505D6B633}&oid=322631
  9. Fragments of stucco roundels in situ, Taq-i Kisra, south building, Ctesiphon, Iraq, 1931–32. (n.d.). Retrieved April 7, 2015, from http://www.metmuseum.org/met-around-the-world/images/wb_large/wb_Ctesiphon2.jpg
  10. "Wall panel with a guinea fowl [Sasanian] (32.150.13)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/32.150.13 (March 2012)
  11. gamesmuseum.uwaterloo.ca, i-p-c-s.org antiquemapsandprints.com, obviously more research is needed here.
  12. Samurai helmet representing the flaming jewel, by Unkai Mitsuhisa ca 1630, Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection, exhibited at Boston Fine Arts Museum, April–August 2013.
  13. "Subsequently the heart symbol became a shorthand for enthusiasm for everything form software to Yorkshire terriers. It was a stamp that validated lifestyles. People could ♥ their grandchildren or line dancing or Buddha." Stephen Amidon, Thomas Amidon, The Sublime Engine: A Biography of the Human Heart (2011), p. 193.
  14. "the heart-check mark that began to appear on a wide array of food packaging in 1995. The symbol consists of a heart branded with a bold, efficient check mark. It is copyrighted by the American Heart Association (AHA) which licences it for a nominal fee to companies whose products meet the organization's criteria for saturated fat and cholesterol content." Stephen Amidon, Thomas Amidon, The Sublime Engine: A Biography of the Human Heart (2011), p. 193.
  15. Woodward, John and George Burnett (1969). Woodward's a treatise on heraldry, British and foreign, page 203. Originally published 1892, Edinburgh: W. & A. B. Johnson. ISBN 0-7153-4464-1. LCCN 02-20303
  16. McAndrew, Scotland's Historic Heraldry, 2006, p. 141
  17. McAndrew 2006, p. 213.
  18. C. Weyers in: Stengel (ed.), Archiv für Diplomatik: Schriftgeschichte, Siegel, und Wappenkunde, Volume 54, 2008, p. 100.
  19. Weisstein, Eric W., "Cardioid" from MathWorld.
  20. Eric W. Weisstein, "Heart Curve." From MathWorld
  21. "Hamid Naderi Yeganeh, "Heart" (November 2014)". American Mathematical Society. November 2014. Retrieved March 29, 2015.
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