Summary: The ivy leaf portrayed by
prehistoric potters of long-forgotten cultures evolved
into the red playing-card heart. This botanic symbol
found in ancient Greek and Roman art - primarily in vase
painting - represented both physical and, above all,
eternal love, withstanding death.
Over the centuries, the red playing-card heart has become familiar to us through art, architecture, advertising and kitsch; it is cardiology's emblem across the world.
There is a bulbous, baked-clay goblet in the Museum of Kabul in Afghanistan which dates from the first half of the 3rd millenium B.C., depicting stylized fig leaves with broad stems. This decoration can be found on later ceramics of neighbouring cultures. As well as other vegetal decorations there appear these same fig leaves - and later ivy leaves - which anticipate the modern heart shape.
Approximately 1000 years later these botanic patterns
appeared on Cretian clay vessels; fresco painters
decorated scenes of figures in Minoan palaces with
naturalistically painted tendrils of ivy, heart-shaped
leaves and flowers.
The final transformation of the ivy leaf into the red
playing-card heart of spiritual and physical love took
place parallel to the secularization of the religious
heart metaphor into the wordly, courtly heart found in
the literature of the middle ages.
From then on, the red heart spread quickly across Europe, especially in the area of the Catholic Church. Several facts are responsible for this:
Heart-shaped leaves and hearts can be found on gothic
grave stones relatively often. They indicate the origins
of families whose fiefs usually lay next to larger
stretches of water or where rivers ran through.
Painters and sculptors portrayed the human heart in the
form of the playing-card heart more and more often,
especially when they wanted to depict erotic and
The first medical illustrations of the heart were shaped like pine cones or pyramids, and were probably influenced by the description of the organ by the hippocratic school, by Galen and later by Arabian doctors. Later, from the 13th to the 16th centuries, the organ is depicted in the form derived from the ivy leaf.
The knowledge of anatomy which Hellenic physicians had gained through autopsies had sunk into oblivion during the Middle Ages, which were characterised by religion. The anatomists were inspired by artists and book illustrators, and portrayed the heart as an inverted leaf, with the tip bent to the left and the stem symbolizing the arterial tree.
Even the universal genius Leonardo da Vinci used this analogy between the leaf symbol and the realistic shape in his early anatomic sketches.
Perhaps the Norman stonemason, who made a porphyrite coffin for the Hohenstaufen emperor Heinrich VI, had the heart in mind when, following the Roman example, he created the mysterious leaf symbol with 4 grooves (= 4 ventricles?), the tip pointing to the left, and the stem (vessel stalk?).
If we compare this depiction with the early drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, then the picture becomes more and more fascinating.
The ring with the heart-shaped ivy leaf held by the divine hand, is an ornament symbolizing eternal love, a so-called "corona vitae" - the crown of life - a symbol of love beyond death, and was taken over from the ancient Roman world by Christian symbolism.
Whilst, since Vesal at the latest, the heart is
depicted in medical illustrations in its anatomical
form, the red card-game heart, as symbol of spiritual
and physical love, but also of lesser feelings, started
its triumphal march from the european culture area
across the whole world.
Interestingly, in Buddhism the playing-card heart also
developed - independently of the western metamorphosis -
from the fig tree (the bodhi tree) into the symbol not
of love, but of enlightenment.
Today, the symbol with the two curves, running down to a tip, is a pictogram for a whole range of feelings and has become the emblem of cardiology.
The prehistoric potters in Afghanistan and the greek
vase painters did not associate the ivy leaf decoration
with the heart of ancient times.