My Bloody Valentine

To mark the day, a love story between a geometric shape and the organ we know as the heart, spanning centuries and traversing medieval battlefield, cathedral, gambling hall and bedroom. Author Iain Gately details the long and meandering path the figure ♥ or cardioid, and the organ that pumps blood, took before they were united in current culture as the icon of love we call "heart." The ♥ symbol has been attributed to regeneration as a Classic Greek image of vine leaves, Viking tributes to Odin signaling battle madness, a sign of courtly love in medieval times, sacred love of Christ for the church, and low connotations of various body parts. As for the organ, its biological function was mysterious until the 17th century, and throughout history the physical seat of love has wandered to other organs, notably including the liver.

Media and popular culture depictions would evolve, and today, across cultures we think of the symbol, the organ and the sentiment in much the same pitter-pattering, googly-eyed way.

Notwithstanding such abuse, and the increased, indeed relentless commercialisation of St. Valentine’s Day, the sentimental link between ♥ meaning heart and affection has triumphed in the contest with cynicism. Countless parodies have failed to discredit it, and the symbol has spread with ease around the world. In Japan, for instance, the Hello Kitty brand features a kitten-ness with a cardioid head, but without a mouth, for according to the brand’s owners “she speaks from the heart, having no need of any particular language.” Moreover, the American Greeting Card Association estimated that over a billion valentine cards were sent in 2009, implying that nearly one-sixth of the population of the planet choose to express their affection with reference to a particular iconography: &hearts equals heart equals love.

A Heart-Shaped History, Lapham's Quarterly

Photo: Leonardo DaVinci's sketch of the human heart in 1498