A Painted ❤️ in Ancient Rome? A Brief Artistic History of the Heart Symbol

By Vivian Jin
February 7, 2024
Index Magazine

A Painted ❤️ in Ancient Rome? A Brief Artistic History of the Heart Symbol

This plaster fragment is unevenly shaped and is partly covered in dirt. The top half is bright red. The lower half is light brown and is decorated with darker-colored geometric shapes and a small red ornament in the form of a heart.
925.6.40 Wall painting fragment, Roman. Pigment on plaster. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Fausto Benedetti, 1925.6.40.

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.

Numerous occurrences of heart-shaped motifs are known from antiquity, from Greek and Roman pottery (1960.307; 37.1908) to Egyptian textiles of the early Byzantine and Islamic periods (1985.113; 1924.116). These motifs do not represent the anatomical heart, nor are they associated with affection; instead, they primarily serve ornamental purposes, often depicting ivy, grape and fig leaves, florets, and various other botanical elements. As the sacred plant associated with Dionysos, the god of winemaking and pleasure, ivy frequently appears in the form of wreaths and decorations in proximity to the deity, as seen in one of the images above.

Although written accounts by ancient authors note the resemblance between certain plants and the heart, it is unwarranted to assume that artists were intentionally trying to represent the anatomical heart. In the collection of writing titled Moralia, Greek historian Plutarch (46 AD–119 AD) includes a description of persea, the sacred plant dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis. The Egyptian persea is an evergreen plant, resembling a pear tree. The term later evolved into a designation for an entire genus, with its most renowned member being the persea americana, commonly known as avocado.[1] “Of the plants in Egypt they say that the persea is especially consecrated to the goddess because its fruit resembles a heart (cardia) and its leaf a tongue (glossa)” (Moralia, 378c). While both heart and tongue play significant symbolic roles in Egyptian mythology, later in the same passage, Plutarch shifts the emphasis to the tongue. According to him, Harpocrates, the son of Isis and Osiris, “keeps his finger on his lips in token of restrained speech or silence, and in the month of Mesorê they bring to him an offering of legumes and say, ‘the tongue is luck, the tongue is god’” (Moralia, 378c).

After acknowledging the decorative botanical reality behind the ancient heart shapes, one may wonder how this symbol became associated with affection, given its lack of connection to the anatomically accurate representation of the cardiovascular system. Since ancient times, the heart—at times indistinguishable from the mind—has consistently been depicted as the center of emotions. In Homer’s Iliad, for instance, Hector’s heart is likened to an axe cutting a ship’s timber to illustrate his unwavering determination (Iliad 3.60–65). Virgil poses a philosophical question: “Do the gods light this fire in our hearts, or does each man’s mad desire become his god?” (Aeneid 9.184–185). However, when Ovid narrates Cupid using a golden arrow to pierce Apollo’s heart in Book 1 of the Metamorphoses, it is improbable that he envisions the scalloped heart as depicted in the 18th-century Italian print shown above.

The exploration of human heart anatomy has a history around the globe. In East Asia, the pictographic oracle bone script for “heart,” used in the late second millennium BCE, formed the bases of the Chinese character we use today. Dating from 1700 BCE to 1500 BCE, Egyptian papyri stand out as some of the earliest textual records in medical history concerning the heart. For example, the Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 BCE) asserts that the heart sends blood through great vessels to the rest of the body.[2] In the fifth and early fourth centuries BCE, the texts of the Hippocratic corpus explored the internal anatomy of the heart, positing the presence of two ventricles, valves, and an atrium. Aristotle affirms that the heart serves not only as the seat of emotions but also as the central hub for blood and heat within the body. Based on his observations of the hearts of chicken embryos, he hypothesized that, as with chickens, the human heart would be the first organ to take form. In the second century, the Roman Greek physician and philosopher Galen provided a comprehensive anatomical description of the heart, likening its shape to a pinecone.