[Achievement – the name given in heraldry to the full pictorial representation of a coat of arms.]
As today is the commonly observed St. Valentine’s Day (even
though, as I’ve explained before, it’s the wrong date) it would seem
appropriate to talk about hearts in heraldry.
First of all, let’s look at the armorial achievement of a
member of the lgbt community which features hearts prominently. Below is the
achievement of St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890) as depicted in a window at the
refectory of Oriel College, Oxford, where he was a Fellow. He’s the latest to
join a group of lgbt saints, having been canonised in November last year.
The arms were granted by the College of Arms to John Newman
of London on 15th February 1664, an appropriately close date to today’s modern
observance of the wrong St. Valentine’s Day. There’s no record of any connection
between either the date or St. Valentine to the Newman family, except one we
When the new St. John Henry Newman became a cardinal the
College of Arms failed to find any genealogical link between him and the John
Newman of London and couldn’t confirm to the cardinal that he was entitled to
use this particular coat of arms. However, as a Roman Catholic cardinal St.
John Henry Newman was also subject to the separate heraldic rules and practices
of the Vatican who could.
Even though the original meaning and significance of the original
Newman hearts is lost to us the Christian interpretation that followed St. John
Henry Newman’s appointment as a cardinal gives us an insight into the minds of
The three hearts were interpreted as symbolic of the Holy
Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They also symbolised Christian love -
charity. The yellow background symbolises the glory of God. Medieval heralds
would interpret designs in this way to reflect the owner’s profession or
The meaning of the heart as a symbol of love has been
established for several centuries. The heart shape, however, has some very
different sexual meanings that predate that of romance.
Quite often sources on the internet and in print will say
that the familiar love-heart shape is nothing like that of a real heart. It’s
not supposed to be accurate – it’s symbolic, like lots of other shapes. For
instance, how many real stars have points on them like those on the American
flag? The heart shape has evolved over the centuries, and early representations
(as a symbol of love) do show it more anatomically accurate. Over the centuries
the shape has changed to suit artistic styles. Even today there are many
different styles with fat hearts, hearts with very pointed bases and some that
are highly stylised or abstract.
The early heart shapes were “upside down”, the points were
at the top. In the 14th century they turned around, so, technically, today’s
hearts are upside down, not the original ones.
The shape of the modern love-heart can be traced back to
ancient times. The first recognisable heart shape appears on coins and weights
from Attica in Greece in the 6th century BC (one is pictured below).
Historians have established that this shape doesn’t
represent a heart but the seed of a plant called silphium, or silphion. This was
a very common herb related to parsley and carrot. There was a thriving trade in
this plant and its seeds in the ancient world because it was thought to be both
an aphrodisiac and a contraceptive. I can just imagine the ancient Greek
athletes and soldiers munching on a mouthful of silphium seeds before they had
sex with their boy-lovers.
If you want to conduct a “scientifically controlled
experiment” to test out its properties I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed.
Silphium was so popular that it was consumed into extinction in ancient times.
Like so many things there’s no recorded continuity of use to
link the silphium seed to the love-heart. Only the similarity of shape makes us
assume there is. It’s a common shape after all, as is seen in the coat of arms
of the Denmark (below).
The Danish design was adopted way back in the 11th
century. It forms the senior component of the current arms of the kingdom and as
such was used by King Christian VII of Denmark (1749-1808), a troubled king with a history
of mental health problems who has been identified as bisexual in recent
decades. The earliest records mention that the heart-shapes in the Danish coat
of arms represent water-lily leaves.
There’s another heraldic heart shape which represents something
very personal to half of the world’s population and is seen in the coat of arms
of the Italian Colleoni family (below). You’ll notice that the hearts are point
upwards, as the earliest hearts were depicted. That’s because they don’t
represent hearts at all.
These arms belonged to the family of an Italian soldier
called Bartolomeo Colleoni. He was a great hero in Venice in the 15th century
and had a statue erected in his honour. It’s still there. At the base of the
statue is Colleoni’s coat of arms. While the modern rendition, as above,
invariably depicts three inverted hearts the statue shows them as they were
originally intended (below).
Yes, each of the inverted hearts actually represent
testicles! A spurious urban legend explains this by claiming that Bartolomeo
had three testicles. It is more likely that they are a soundalike pun on his
name - coglioni is the Italian slang word for testicle.
So, that’s my contribution to St. Valentine’s Day, a look at
hearts. Though, after that last example you may never see a love-heart in the
same way again.