Spring 2002

The shape of the heart: I'm all yours

The heart represents sacred and secular love: a bloodless sacrifice

The heart is one of the oldest images in language and in graphics: it’s there in Mesopotamian poetry, in ancient Egyptian funeral texts, in Olmec sacrifice, in Hinduism and Buddhism, in ancient Greece; it’s all over the Old Testament and the Qu’ran.

It’s still omnipresent: in advertising, love lyrics and poetry, art, design, on jewellery and in logos; in cartoons and on clothes. It has always, and universally, meant love, life, courage, spirit, rebirth, communication and the connection with God. Why? Simply, because alone of all the organs, it moves on its own, moves faster at times of stress or excitement, and when it stops moving, you’re dead. From that grew all its powerful imagery.

From early on both its physical reality and the ideas that lived in it needed depicting. The physical heart started out described as pine-cone shaped, which is more or less accurate, when it is contracted in death. As for the metaphorical heart: it has been a house, a book, a rose, a harp, a drum, a pomegranate, a bunch of grapes, a quiver.

Until the early Renaissance, the human heart’s spiritual importance precluded people’s knowing what it looked like. It was physically impossible to see the heart in action, and forbidden to see what it looked like after death – most religions expected resurrection of the body, so the body was absolutely not to be cut up and looked at

One of the main purposes of the depicted heart, whatever its shape, was to render the ancient idea of sacrifice bloodless as society became civilised. Bread and wine replaced flesh and blood, representation replaced the reality, pictures and votive objects replaced bleeding entrails. The image of the heart now represents human rather than religious love, but the message is the same: ‘I’m all yours’.