Friday, 14 February 2020

Queer Achievement: Getting to the Heart of the Matter

[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 invent ourselves.

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 medieval heralds.

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 calling.

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.

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