Ancient and natural symbol, the heart is considered the idealization of all positive feelings as well as a part of the body that links us to a mystical and supranatural dimension. Let’s learn something more about it

It started in Egypt (and China)
Certainly, the Egyptians were the first to create a real Heart symbology, given they attributed to this organ all the most important bodily functions and they stated that “a man is identified by his heart”. It was believed that after reaching the afterlife, the heart was weighed by God Anubi and from this action the fate of the soul of the deceased was decided. The Chinese instead believed that the heart was the main organ in the body and the human body was considered a copy in miniature of the universe, hence the heart was the Emperor, closed inside his fortified palace represented by the chest.

Heart or Earth?
In Celtic and North-European cultures, the heart was the symbol of Mother Earth and it represented the link between man and nature, considered as just one living being from which we depend in every moment. Still today, in many languages the terms Earth and Heart are very similar (English: Earth – Heart. German: Erde – Herz. Swedish: Jord – Hjärta etc.) and they recall a common terminology that probably in ancient times gathered both concepts in the same word, as if the heart that beats in the chest was just an extension of the ground below.

Kelly Doty, The Gold Dust Gallery, Salem, USA
Kelly Doty, The Gold Dust Gallery, Salem, USA

Sacred Heart Of Jesus
One of the most popular icons of art is the so-called Sacred Heart of Jesus, a mystical-religious representation with a heart-shaped lamp, surrounded by a crown of thorns and with a flame on the top, often coming out of the central upper hole. This iconography started at the end of the 17th century and more precisely between 1673 and 1675, when, in the convent of Paray-le-Monial (area around Saone-et-Loire), nun Margaret Maria Alacoque had a series of mystical visions that, after her death (in 1690) were used for her canonization process (she was proclaimed saint on May 13, 1920 by Pope Benedict XV). The worship of the Sacred Heart was so strong that enormous churches were built dedicated to it (the first was the Sacred Heart sanctuary in Monmartre, Paris, built in 40 years, from 1876 to 1916) and the religious orders with these words in their name increased incredibly between the 19th and 20th centuries.

A sort of Holy Grail?
A Medieval tradition indicates the heart as a symbol of the Holy Grail, developing the idea of certain authors according to whom the heart could be the cup of the last supper of Jesus Christ, where his blood was collected after being crucified. Another assonance between heart and cup is found in Islamic traditions, where the heart of arif (the wise) is compared to a cup containing power and wisdom.

Delia Vico, Hold Fast Tattoo Studio, Finale Ligure, Italy
Delia Vico, Hold Fast Tattoo Studio, Finale Ligure, Italy

The Heart of Silphium
The most amazing thing of the Heart symbology is that still today it is represented with a totally different shape from the natural one (the classical red heart with the tip facing down and two spires above) which in reality stems from another completely different symbol. The little heart as we consider it isn’t the representation of any anatomical organ, but simply the stylization of Silphium seeds, a plant of the family of Ferula (the same family of fennel) which grew abundantly along the coasts of the Mediterranean in the Roman Empire. Between the 1st century B.C. and the following one its seeds became the symbol of many cities which marketed the product and which brought them incredible wealth. The “heart” of Silphium – which for many recalled the shape of a vagina – thus became the symbol of free sexual instincts and perhaps for this reason it slowly lost its subversive symbolic meaning and was replaced with the more quiet one of spiritual love and positive feelings.