Why is there a ❤️ on an ancient Roman wall painting fragment? Former graduate student intern Vivian Jin traces the evolution of the heart symbol across a selection of objects in the Harvard Art Museums collections.
The heart-shaped symbol persists as a ubiquitous motif, transcending both contemporary and historical contexts. You might be surprised to find one adorning a decorative border on a small Roman wall painting fragment in the Harvard Art Museums collections. The heart motif on this ancient object captivates the modern eye instantly. However, its symbolic meaning is set apart from that of the familiar emoji we use in our daily communications or the heart button on apps like Instagram and Spotify. The heart shape’s association with love and affection evolved centuries after the Roman era. What do the ancient heart-shaped motifs represent, then, and how did the contemporary heart emoji come to be? Delving into objects housed at the museums, this article serves as a roadmap, tracing the genealogy of the heart symbol.