Love, designed

Falling in Love – The Heart

12 September 2023
From the exhibition

The heart has many meanings. According to the ancient Greek philosophers, it was linked to our most powerful emotions. Venus set hearts ablaze with the arrows fired by her son, Cupid. The earliest appearance of a heart shape was found on a coin in the ancient Roman town of Cyrene. It had nothing to do with a human heart, by the way: it was based on a plant, the silphium.

Courtly love in 12th and 13th-century Europe lent a new meaning to the heart as a literary symbol of love. It required troubadours, noblemen and knights to pledge their hearts to an unattainable, married woman. Courtly love placed these women on a pedestal: it was then up to the man to amuse his lady with singing, poetry, quests and chivalric tournaments.

My heart in your hands
The heart symbol we know today with its two lobes and point first appeared in the Roman d’Alexandre (1344), a prose romance by Lambert le Tort and Alexandre de Bernay. An illustration by Jehan de Grise shows a woman accepting a man’s heart as a gift. The symbol then spread all over Europe, appearing in manuscripts and coats of arms and on jewellery, playing cards and tombstones.

In 1977, the heart symbol became a verb. That was the year the American graphic designer Milton Glaser came up with the I ❤ NY logo to promote a new identity for New York State. It proved hugely successful: demand for T-shirts, caps and bags decorated with the logo exploded. Glazier’s design meant that the ❤ symbol could be used in multiple ways to show your affinity with a person, place or thing.

Love is… an emoji
The Japanese telecom provider NTT DoCoMo took all this to a new level in 1999 when it launched the very first emojis. Nowadays there at least 30 of them incorporating a heart symbol. That’s handy, because love can sometimes be hard to define. Which is why we add a ❤ to our e-mails and messages. Why we send Valentine cards with a ❤ and give gifts with a ❤. The enduring popularity of the ❤ symbol offers hope and recalls the timeless idea that love can save us.