The heart icon looks nothing like a human heart. Here’s why.

Sweethearts Candy may be gone this Valentine’s Day, but that shape – you know the one! – is everywhere. The iconic symbol of love looks nothing like the human organ. Why? Blame Aristotle, or maybe a plant.

The mystery of how the heart icon achieved its shape likely began in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, scholars say.

Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher and scientist, wrongly believed the human heart had three cavities. In fact, the heart has four chambers that pump oxygen-rich blood in and out. 

Fourteenth-century scientists depicted this ancient observation by drawing the heart as two large contoured cavities connected in a point by a third, smaller cavity, according to Vinken.

Some medieval historians and cardiologists, such as late scholar Pierre Vinken who authored The Shape of the Heart, say anatomists illustrating Aristotle’s mistaken notion of what a human heart looked like might have contributed to the shape. 

Dissecting humans was not acceptable in Greece during those times, so scientists analyzed the organs of animals instead. 

By the time the anatomical error was corrected in the sixteenth century, the icon was so popular the image stuck, Vinken wrote. 

In fourteenth-century Europe, the heart began to symbolize love and affection in works of art where, in an act of courtly love, a man would symbolically offer his heart in his hands to his beloved. Possibly the earliest use of the scalloped heart in this gesture is the thirteenth-century manuscript of Roman de la Poire (Romance of the Pear). 

Other possible theories include the heart shape mirroring the seedpods of an ancient type of silphium plant that acted as an early form of birth control in the Greek colony Cyrene. The heart shape was also used in images to illustrate the Sacred heart in association with nuns’ spirituality, according to Thomas Dale, medieval studies expert and professor of art history at University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

“Sometimes the heart is depicted superimposed on the body of Christ on the cross,” Dale said. “In this context, the heart was the site of desire for spiritual longing and union with God.”

In 2019, love is often symbolized by emojis. Google reports the heart-eyes and the heart emoji are the fourth and fifth most popular emoji worldwide.

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