The heart shape is a world-recognised symbol of love, romance and conversely sacrifice. It can be seen everywhere – it's even on our emoji keyboards in multiple colours, and being trademarked by footballers. Although the heart shape bears little resemblance to the anatomical shape of the heart, it has been used and accepted as the recognised shape since the late Middle Ages and depicted this way in art history.
Up until the Middle Ages, the heart was typically depicted as a pear – yes, a pear – or a pine cone, and then the shape seems to have been turned 180 degrees so that the point faced down with the scalloped edge at the top. There are no records that explain why this change occurred or why it then became the way to represent the heart, but from 13th and 14th century Britain the heart symbol was recognised as the same way up that we see it today.
Saint Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne (1645 - 1650)
Although this shape that hasn't changed in hundreds of years and was established fairly quickly, it was not used as a symbol of romantic love until later. The heart shape during the Middle Ages still symbolised exactly what it was meant to be: the heart. This led to its use in many religious paintings, most famously works painted for Martin Luther, an important influencer in the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. The 'Sacred Heart' of Christ was often depicted with the new shape, and was supposed to remind people of Jesus' sacrifice for the good of humanity. Not only in art, but the new shape got top billing on the deck of playing cards for the heart suit during the 15th century – a design that remains the same today.
Sacred Heart of Jesus with Saint Ignatius of Loyola and Saint Louis Gonzaga by Jose de Paez (1729 - 1790)
There were some variations in the design of the heart shape – particularly in religious paintings. Some painters still kept the aorta on show, but this extra detail gradually died out because the heart symbol we see today was already recognised on playing cards and many other places.
There are various theories as to how and why the new shape came about: some say it is the shape of fig leaves, ivy leaves or the water lily – all symbols associated with fidelity. Some say that the top of the shape represents the buttocks, breasts and various other parts of the human anatomy associated with desire. These hypotheses, however, appear to have come about in the 1960s and have no real historical evidence to suggest this is the case. There doesn’t even appear to be sufficient evidence connecting the old pear shaped heart with the newer version.
Big Pink Heart (circa 1910)
During the 19th century, a period heavily influenced by the Romantics (late 18th century to early 19th century), the heart symbol became heavily associated with romantic love, passion and sacrifice. This was also the time when the penny post created the craze for greetings cards. St Valentine's Day cards with copious, heavily decorated heart symbols were very popular and, at the time, deeply romantic. Since then the use of the heart around St Valentine's Day has become more popular than ever.
Image from 'Keith Haring: The Political Line' exhibition by Keith Haring
In contemporary art, artists took the heart symbol and included it in some of their most famous works. Keith Haring, the American artist and social activist used hearts in his earliest work and carried this theme on throughout his entire career. At a glance, the vibrant, cartoon-like simplicity of Haring's illustrations look innocent and fun. The drawings are in fact of two men in love, which was a bold and positive statement during the time it was created in the 1980s. The positive statements were praised as helping society accept people for who they were. The bold lines around the heart are seen as large gestures of positive energy – something very characteristic of Haring. He was believed to be a real romantic and noted for believing in the best in humanity with the power of love.
Tracey Emin had a variety of live exhibitions of her neon signs, most famous among the locations were Times Square and The Peninsula, Hong Kong. These neon signs were messages of love, often surrounded by the heart symbol. In a world where most signs are advertising, a message of genuine love really stands out – particularly when it has a heart drawn around it. In an interview with the White Cube gallery Tracey Emin explained, "It's an eternal statement about love […] Even if it sounds over romantic or corny, at the end of the day nearly everyone must have experienced that."
After much research and few answers, historians have concluded that there are a number of possibilities to explain the reason why the heart symbol is the shape it is, but none of them have been documented. Much like art itself, the answer to our title is subjective – a heart shape can be the way it is for any reason you want.
Why do you think hearts are drawn the shape they are?
Saint Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne/ Gift of The Ahmanson Foundation/ Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons
Sacred Heart of Jesus with Saint Ignatius of Loyola and Saint Louis Gonzaga by José de Páez/ http://arttattler.com/archivelatinamerica.html/ Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons
Early 20th century Valentine's Day card, showing woman holding heart shaped decoration and flowers, scanned from period card from ca. 1910 with no notice of copyright.
Keith Haring: The Political Line/ Aaron Muszalski - Flickr/ Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons