Heart Symbols and Meaning in Art and Drawing

Hearts in Art and Doodles

The heart is a popular symbol in art, doodling, and drawing. Most simply, of course, it just means 'love'. But of course, such an important symbol carries many more subtleties of meaning, and has many symbolic variants. Find out what some heart symbols mean and find inspiration for using heart shapes in your own art and doodles.

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The Classic Heart

Drawing a glass painting design on a piece of tracing paper using a chinagraph pencil (heart shape)
Ruth Jenkinson / Getty Images

The modern heart shape is a pictogram - an abstract symbol rather than a realistic drawing; while having some origin in the real form, it has lost much of its relationship to the object it represents - much as the 'smiley face' bears little relation to the human face, with simplified elements arranged in a meaningful pattern. Early representations of the heart were more rounded and reminiscent of the biological heart. Egyptian images of the heart were somewhat like a vase, with protruding handles somewhat suggestive of the large veins.

The forms that led to the modern heart shape are thought to have their origins in stylized ivy leaf shapes, which became visually cognate with the heart shape. But it's a complicated history - so much so that entire books have been written on the topic. The earliest known representation of the heart as a symbol of romantic love appears in a 13th-century miniature, with a suitor offering his heart to a lady.

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The Sacred Heart

Detail of a door of at Iglesia San Agustín church of Santiago city in Chile
Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo / Getty Images

The Sacred Heart, or Sacred Heart of Jesus, is a symbolic representation of the physical heart of Jesus, the Son of God in Christian tradition. and is usually encircled by an interwoven circle of thorny branches, representing the "Crown of Thorns" that was placed on Jesus' head, and may be surmounted with a symbolic cross (representing the Crucifixion), or a flame. The Sacred Heart may also be depicted as surrounded by beams of light or flames or both, suggesting the "transformative power" and "divine light" of love. It is frequently depicted in isolation, as part of a more elaborate design, or within a portrait of the Christ figure. If surrounded by flowers or pierced by seven swords, the heart may instead represent the Sacred Heart of Mary, the mother of Jesus in Christian mythology.

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The Wounded Heart

Heart With an Arrow Through it
CSA Images/ B&W Archive Collection / Getty Images

The heart pierced with an arrow variously represents the pain of love (be it simple longing or unrequited love) and sometimes a broken heart, although in modern usage a zig-zag shatter line is more usual for the latter. The arrow is usually thought to be representative of Cupid's arrow -- Cupid being the mischevious Roman god of love and desire. One could also see a connection in the Christian story of the spear piercing the side of Jesus, and the sorrows of Mary which are represented by piercing arrows. (The arrow appears in much Christian symbolism; not also the historical story of the martyr Sebastian, shot by arrows).

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Cross, Heart and Anchor

Camargue cross.
sigurcamp / Getty Images

The combined Cross, Heart and Anchor is another religious symbol, representing for Christians the three theological virtues of 'faith, hope and charity'. For a traditional maritime culture, the Anchor had the important meaning of safety, and symbolically suggests a fixed and certain knowledge that offers security through the troubled waters of life.

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The Heart in Other Cultures

While some argue that Chinese is not an ideographic language, many of its characters nonetheless retain links to a graphical representation. The Chinese word for 'heart', 'hsin' in the modern reading, evolved from a pictogram that reads beautifully as a drawing of the human heart as a connected, curved vessel.