Tag Archives: ancient art

Happy Valentine’s Day! How the Heart Became the Shape of Love

Today, we at AntiquityNOW commemorate that most wondrous of all human emotions: Love. On past Valentine’s Days, we have explored how love enters through the eyes and nose, how the brain on love is a power to behold (Robert Palmer does a cameo in this one) and even offered up an ancient Thai rose salad recipe to enjoy on this holiday. But being the curious afficionados of ancient history we are, we wondered, where did the heart-shaped symbol originate?

Ancient silver coin from Cyrene
depicting a seed or fruit of silphium.

As where many ancient secrets begin, let’s look at nature. There are numerous plants with blossoms or leaves in the shape of the symbol we now see as a heart.  But the one in history that is most relevant, had multitudinous uses in ancient times and is an eternal mystery to the science of propagation is silphium. Also known as silphion, laserwort, or laser, it was widely used by Egyptians, Knossos Minoans, Greeks and Romans as a seasoning, medicine and perfume.  And in a cheeky irony by Mother Nature, it was also popular as an aphrodisiac and a reportedly effective contraceptive. It grew naturally around the North African city of Cyrene (founded as Greek city in 631 BCE at what is now Shahhat, Libya), and was such an important trade item that Cyrenian coins displayed its heart-shaped seed or fruit. It was documented as literally worth its weight in gold.[1] From this description, it certainly appears to be a cure-all:

It was said to have short, thick leaves, tiny yellow flowers, and bulky, vigorous roots. The sap that oozed from the silphium plant was particularly aromatic and medicinal, at least by ancient standards. The wonder drug of its day, silphium was said to cure such maladies as tooth decay, warts, dog bites, stomach ailments, coughs, leprosy, and anal growths. But it was more valued for its use as a contraceptive…more specifically as an abortifacient. Ancient medical texts all repeat the claim that a pessary made of silphium sap was effective at “purging the uterus” to “bring forth menstruation”, all clever euphemisms for drug-induced abortions. In a society that placed a high value on legitimate heirs …, silphium’s (sic) became highly sought after as the first “morning-after” pill.[2]

It’s no wonder silphium became so valued. Alas, silphium proved impossible to cultivate, and apparently became extinct, or at least that is the prevailing thought. No one can unravel why this extinction occurred, or whether some plants may still grow naturally somewhere today. For those fascinated by the cultivation of plants or drawn to historical factoids, find out what the silphium mystery has in common with Aristotle, poppies and World War I, and camas (product of a male camel and female llama).

Silphium’s popularity as an aphrodisiac and contraceptive along with its heart-shaped seed suggest a correlation with the symbol we use for love in modern times. The sexual association is found in ancient depictions of the plant’s shape with phallic and testicular imagery.[3]  And while the Romans mentioned silphium in their poetry, it is the works of Catullus that linked silphium to carnal pleasures.[4]

As compelling as the story of silphium is, there is a later explanation of the heart’s symbol, one embedded in human anatomy:

Scholars such as Pierre Vinken and Martin Kemp have argued that the symbol has its roots in the writings of Galen and the philosopher Aristotle, who described the human heart as having three chambers with a small dent in the middle. According to this theory, the heart shape may have been born when artists and scientists from the Middle Ages attempted to draw representations of ancient medical texts.[5]

With this theory in mind, let’s fast forward to the Middle Ages when the concept of romantic love found full expression in art. The earliest depiction of a heart-shaped object given as a token of love is from 1255 CE, painted in a studio in Paris:

The heart did not feature in European art until the later Middle Ages. The first illustration of a heart outside the anatomical literature occurred as late as the 13th century, in a French manuscript, written by an unknown poet and entitled Roman de la poire (Romance of the pear). This story takes its title from a scene in which the damsel offers a pear, analogous to Eve’s apple, to her sweetheart. In the tale, the suitor’s gaze is represented as an actual character called Douz Regart (Sweet Looks). In a miniature, within the calligraphic curve of a golden capital S, he is pictured kneeling before a lady and offering her the lover’s heart. The shape of this heart resembles the form of a pine cone—a shape that accords with descriptions of the heart in anatomical literature since Galen and Avicenna.[6]

So in this version of the origin of the heart shape, there is a definitive connection to romantic love.  As time went on, artists used the heart image in religious paintings and in ways showing various expressions of love. Yet it still remains the one most associated with love and with its special day of February 14th.

Love is complex and enigmatic. It can be exhilarating. It can be tragic. It’s only proper that the origins of its most visible symbol should be shrouded in a certain amount of mystery. Whether 2,500 years ago, whether in 2021, it seems romance is in our natures. Don’t you just that?

 

Related

 

 

[1] https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170907-the-mystery-of-the-lost-roman-herb

[2] https://insanitek.net/ancient-botanical-mystery/

[3] https://www.jstor.org/stable/4256173?seq=1

[4] Ibid

[5] Why Does the Heart Shape Symbolize Love? – HISTORY

[6] first-page-pdf (sciencedirect.com)

 

Throwback Thursday! Perfectly Preserved Petroglyphs

Siberian petroglyphs. Image taken by Sergei Alkin.

Siberian petroglyphs. Image taken by Sergei Alkin.

It is said “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but some pictures are worth much more than that. Some ancient pictures are worth a thousand years of history and knowledge. These images tell stories about our ancestors and they help us to understand our past.

Recently, a fascinating find in Siberia was revealed for the first time and it provides a 4,000-year-old window into the ancient past. When scientists were alerted to its presence three years ago, they decided to keep it a secret in order to protect the site while they studied and cataloged its treasures. Now, for the first time, its location has been made public and our eager eyes can feast upon the perfectly preserved art. Continue reading

Strata, Portraits of Humanity, Episode 14, “Youth Diving on Shipwrecks” and “Saving Cyprus Frescoes”

StrataImage-webNext up in the video news-magazine series Strata:  Portraits of Humanity, produced by AntiquityNOW’s partner, Archaeological Legacy Institute, is a segment on a group of young people learning the ins and outs of marine archaeology, and a report on the wonders revealed by restorers of a Renaissance fresco in Cyprus.

The first video shows how Biscayne National Park and the NPS Submerged Resources Center partnered with Youth Diving With a Purpose for a project on shipwreck archaeology.  Biscayne Bay offers a challenging and intriguing introduction for these young people into the mysteries of the deep and the role of marine archaeology in preserving the past.  The second video reveals how restorers are peeling back the layers of time to decipher a painting representing a tragic study in faith. For 500 years, an exquisite Renaissance fresco, the “Forty Martyrs of Sebaste,” has remained hidden, forgotten and neglected in a 14th Century church in Famagusta, Cyprus.  The video charts the painstaking work of rescuing the fresco from obscurity and ruin, a pioneering project that puts heritage above politics.  After decades of neglect, saving Famagusta’s forgotten frescoes begins. Continue reading

Tattoos and the Body as Canvas: Erasing the Past With Modern Tattoos

basma-hameed-before-after-cosmetic-tattooWe’ve written before about tattoos in our post Tattoos and the Body as Canvas. How from ancient times people have etched into flesh the story of their lives.  From designs that heighten beauty, signify status, show affiliation or even scourge a social outcast, tattoos have always been about designations. Indeed, our body as canvas is at once both intimate and public. For some, tattoos depict their innermost beings for the world to see.  For others, particularly when used to announce a person’s outlier status in society, tattoos are meant to be felt as a visceral destruction of self. Continue reading

Ancient Egyptian Blue: How the World’s First Synthetic Pigment Is Producing Tomorrow’s Brave—and Colorful–New World

color paletteHave you ever noticed that the AntiquityNOW website has splashes of a particular set of vibrant colors? Perhaps you’ve even found the Our Colors section on our site that reveals the ancient history behind our beauteous array. One color, specifically the deep blue, is particularly intriguing with its 4,500-year-old past, its surprising relevance for today’s scientific inquiry and its future promise for such fields as medicine and communications technology. Continue reading

KIDS’ BLOG! Seeing Ancient Invisible Ink Through Modern Eyes

Image by Noel Hidalgo Tan, Antiquity Publications.

Image by Noel Hidalgo Tan, Antiquity Publications.

Invisible ink, such a simple and yet crafty way to keep secrets. You may know that it was used in wars such as the American Civil War, the American Revolutionary War and both World Wars, but did you know it was being used thousands of years ago by ancient civilizations? In the first century AD, Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History, an early encyclopedia, about how the milk of the tithymallus plant could be adapted as an invisible ink. Ovid spoke about secret ink in his Art of Love. Ahmed Qalqashandi, a medieval Egyptian writer and mathematician, described several types of invisible ink.[1] And recently an article published in LiveScience explored a startling new discovery at Cambodia’s famous Angkor Wat temple regarding invisible ink.[2] Ancient invisible ink didn’t always start out as invisible and in this case the ancient artists probably had no idea that their stunning works would one day be hidden to the naked eye. Continue reading

Celebrating Chinese New Year: The Dragon Re-Interpreted

003 The dragon has a long and esteemed history in Chinese lore.  In honor of Chinese New Year, AntiquityNOW’s Artist-in-Residence Dan Fenelon has recast this legendary figure into phantasmagorical creations that fuse the ancient and the modern with a whimsical turn—a Fenelon trademark. Continue reading

Today’s Muse Welcomes Art by Ashkal

Musical Sensation AshkalsWhen Ashkal, who lives in Pakistan, sent us the above artwork for our critique, we immediately requested his consent to post it on Today’s Muse, AntiquityNOW’s creative section. Ashkal says that his art grows out of his love of learning about the world, its people and diverse cultures. Continue reading

KIDS’ BLOG! Today’s Art Inspired by the Ancient Maya and Aztec Civilizations

Monster Mash by Dan Fenelon

Monster Mash by Dan Fenelon

Dan Fenelon, AntiquityNOW’s Virtual Artist in Residence, looks to the past to feed his boundless imagination.  He reaches in to antiquity and plucks inspiration from many ancient cultures to create a new art that is both modern and timeless.  Two of the civilizations that inspire him are the Mayas and the Aztecs.  Both flourished for thousands of years and created some of the most beautiful and recognizable works of art and architecture. Continue reading