Love Symbols in Art History

Love Symbols in Art History

The Love Heart

The heart symbol is incredibly familiar to us and is one of the most commonly used emojis across the world. But have you ever wondered where it comes from? The decorative heart had been used in heraldry for centuries, but it did not become associated with love until the 13th Century. The first known depiction is in a French manuscript of poetry titled Roman de la Poire (Romance of the Pear), in which we see a man kneeling and offering a pine cone-shaped heart to a lady. This man is known as 'Sweet Looks,' and is in fact a personification of the lover's enamoured gaze. 


Flowers have been associated with love for centuries. In Botticelli's Renaissance masterpiece 'The Birth of Venus', we see the goddess emerging from the sea in a shell. She is being showered with an array of flowers, and each species symbolises something different. For example, we see violets decorating the pink cape on the right, which are a symbol of modesty and would have been used in love potions. 

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They may be man's best friend, but for centuries dogs were used as a symbol in art. Perhaps their most famous appearance is in Flemish artist Jan van Eyck's painting 'The Arnolfini Portrait'. A variety of symbols have been used to highlight the love between this couple, including a little dog in the foreground, which is a symbol of loyalty. 

Maple Leaf

In China and Japan, the maple leaf has been used to symbolise love in art, especially in ukiyo-e woodblock prints of the Edo period. Paintings and prints flourished in this period and artists looked towards the sensory pleasures of life for inspiration. Like the maple tree produces sweet sap, which we call maple syrup, love likewise produces sweetness in daily life. 


Music has always been associated with love, and the harp (one of the oldest musical instruments) has been included in artworks throughout the centuries. The harp has been used to charm guests in royal courts and sitting rooms since Tudor times, but its history as a symbol of love goes further back than this - to the age of King David - who was said to have played the harp for God to express his undying love.