Back to Bestiarium / Symbols


In heraldry a heart is a leaf-motif and not a realistic representation of a real heart but most resembles a poplar leaf. It has, together with a lime leaf known in the pack of cards as ‘spades’, likely a similar symbolic  meaning. It is not known why this particular shape was chosen nor if the shape of the poplar leaf has something to do with its symbolical meaning. Both the heart and the spades have been badges of office. [1] If by the hearts and spades leaves are meant, the fact that a  tree is often the symbol of a particular territory may give us a clue to their symbolical meaning (guardian/keeper/caretaker of the territory?).

Human heart

Poplar leaf


An early representation of  hearts is on a Persian piece of cloth today in Aachen.


Fragment of a reliquary cloth. Silk twill. Persian, 3rd - 4th century. Aachen, Cathedral treasure.


Pairs of confronting peacocks share a nimbus, crowned by lily-like leaves; between the peacocks, pillars with foliate capitals. Close in style to the Antinoë silks, this fabric is one of the best examples of this kind. [2]


On this interesting piece there are many different symbols. The central representation consists of a sun surrounded by 29 stars or planets and is crowned by a lily-shaped ornament or crown. Two peacocks are serving as supporters. Between this apparently repeating composition  is a pile decorated with nine red hearts.

A recent publication  could give an indication about the meaning of the hearts and the stars. [3] From it it appears that the number of hearts and stars correspond with the number of regions and provinces  of Persia in gthe time that the silk cloth was made.

In the time of the Sassanid king Shapur I (240/241-272 AD) therewere nine regional governors (šahrab = satrap)) in Persia. These are summed up on an inscription on the Kaába of Zoroaster in Naqši Rustam. This inscription consists of the names of the satraps, his function and his region. As follows:

1.       Vārzin šahrab of Gay

2.       Ardaxsir šahrab of Goyman

3.       Tiyanag, šahrab of Hamadan

4.       Ardaxsir, šahrab of Niriz

5.       Narseh, šahrab of Rind

6.       Friyog, šahrab of Veh-Andiyk-Sabuhr

7.       Rastag, šahrab of Veh-Ardaxsir

8.       Pabag, šahrab of Husro(-sad)-Ohrmazd

9.       Abarez-soy, šahrab of Husro-sad-Ohrmazd


For the rest there were 29 provinces (šahr) governed by a mogbed namely:


  1. Abersahr
  2. Adurbadagan
  3. Ardaxsir-xvarrah
  4. Bisabuhr
  5. Delan
  6. Eran-asan-kar-Kavad
  7. Eran-vinard-Kavad
  8. Eran-xvarrah-Sabuhr
  9. Eran-xvarrah-Yazdgerd
  10. Frax-kar-Peroz [4]
  1. Garm-Kerman
  2. Gurgan
  3. Hamadan [5]
  4. Husro-sad-Kavad
  5. Kelan
  6. Mad [6]
  7. Masabadan
  8. Mesun
  9. Nod-Ardaxsiragan
  10. Peroz Sabuhr


  1. Ray
  2. Royan
  3. Royan et Zalexan
  4. Staxr
  5. Sahr-Ram-Peroz
  6. Veh-Ardaxsir
  7. Veh-Andiyok-Sabuhr
  8. Veh-Kavad
  9. Zrang


Taking into account that the piece is originating from Persia it would represent the administrative division of the Sassanid Empire in the time of Shapur I. The moon (a sun was usually represented as a disc radiant in Persia) and the stars are probably the symbol of the state and its provinces, the peacocks the badges of rank of the Grand vizir and the achievement the emblem of his government. In this constellation the hearts are the emblems of the satraps (vice-kings) ranking right below the Grand Vizir.


A second example of the use of hearts is from the Roman Empire. Here the heart was an emblem of high military officials, the comites domesticorum. These commanded the corps of officer cadets, the domestici pedites and -equites. Their rank, illustres, indicates that they were amongst the most highly placed officers of the military hierarchy and often one of their number would become a magister militum. Their status allowed them to be ex officio members of the consistory, and as such they were rsponsible to the emperor and to no other military official. [7]

The shields of these comites domesticorum are in the Notitia Dignitatum, compiled around the turn of the 4th and 5th century


Comes Domesticorum Peditum in the West

according to the Notitia Dignitatum. fol 186r

Comes Domesticorum Equitum in the West

according to the Notitia Dignitatum fol 186r

Comes Domesticorum Peditum in the East

according to the Notitia Dignitatum. fol 208r

Comes Domesticorum Equitum in the East

according to the Notitia Dignitatum. fol 208r


The shields are each decorated with a ten-pointed sun, the emblem of the realm of the Roman Empire,  with hearts between their rays.  On the shields of the comites of the East an achievement of the Imperial Imago’s supported by angels are added in chief.

The suns-and-hearts may be interpreted as the emblems of High Servants of Officials of the Empire


Portrait of a Byzantine official, 6th cent.

Mosaic in the absis of the San Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna


White tunica with purple cuff bands, purple mantle strewn with golden hearts. White scarf ensigned with a black cross. Probably Bishop Maximianus (546-556) or the first Exarch of Ravenna, Decius (585-586) or one of his successors.


A third example of the use of hearts is from Byzantium. Here in the 11th century the official dresses of some high officials were decorated with red or golden hearts. 

There are for example representations of St Demetrius, the patron saint of Thessalonica, on which he is dessed in a mantle strewn with hearts which probably made him a important official of or from Thessalonica. Spades and hearts are also on the dresses of several and on the Hungarian crowns of Monomachus (1042-’55) and of St Stephen/Geza I 1074-’77) dating from the same time. [8] Here the official dresses of courtiers and the emperor and empress themselves are decorated with hearts.

What the hearts symbol actually means in this context is documented by the portrait of Emperor Nikephoros III (1078-’81) on which he is flanked by his senior court dignitaries, all of them proedroi, (presidents) in a manuscript from the1070s. From left to right:


the proedros and epi tou kanikleiou (keeper of the imperial inkstand)  his red mantle strewn with golden spades

the prōtoproedros and prōtovestiarios (keeper of the sacred (imperial) wardrobe, a eunuch, since he is beardless), his tunica decorated with rings enclosing four red lions passant.

the emperor, his blue mantle strewn with  golden hearts

the proedros and dekanos, (chief of ten) his red mantle strewn with golden hearts

the proedros and megas primikērios his red mantle strewn with golden hearts and XI-cyphers


Of these the emperor, the decanos and the megas primikerios have the hearts in common.

Internet learns us that:


Decanus means "chief of ten" in Late Latin. The term originated in the Roman army and became used thereafter for subaltern officials in the Byzantine Empire, as well as for various positions in the Church,

History and functions[

The decanus was originally the leader of a contubernium, the squad of eight legionaries that lived in the same tent and the two support units/servants of the contubernium. It must not be confused with the decurio, which was a title given to civic officials and to leaders of 30-strong squadrons (turmae) of cavalry. In Greek texts, it is equivalent to the rank of dekarchos ("commander of ten").

From the 4th century, it became used for palace messengers, particularly those in the service of the Roman empress. They also apparently served as guards at gates, and in the 6th century, John Lydus equates them with the ancient lictors. In the 899 Kletorologion of Philotheos, the decanus (transcribed into Greek as δεκανός, dekanos) was a mid-level functionary, serving under the protasekretis. According to the mid-10th century De Ceremoniis of Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 913–959), he was "in charge of the imperial papers" when the Byzantine emperor was on campaign


The Latin term primicerius, hellenized as primikērios (πριμικήριος), was a title applied in the later Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire to the heads of administrative departments, and also used by the Church to denote the heads of various colleges.

Etymologically the term derives from primus in cera, which is to say in tabula cerata, the first name in a list of a class of officials, which was usually inscribed on a waxed tablet.


Civil and military

In the Late Roman army, the primicerius was a rank junior to the tribunus and senior to the senator They are best attested in units associated with the imperial court, chiefly imperial guards. Thus in the 4th to 6th centuries there were the primicerii of the protectores domestici and of the Scholae Palatinae, but also primicerii in charge of the armament factories (fabricae), which, like the Scholae, where under the jurisdiction of the magister officiorum. Primicerii are also to be found in the staffs of regional military commanders (duces), as well as in some regular military units. In the later Byzantine era, under the Komnenian emperors (1081-1185), primikērioi appear as commanders in the palace regiments of the Manglabitai, Vardariōtai, Vestiaritai and the Varangians.

In the late 11th century, the dignity of megas prim[m]ikērios ("Grand Primicerius") was established, which ranked very high in court hierarchy well into the Palaiologan period, where he functioned as a chief of ceremonies.


All three offices (including the one of Emperor) have a military background and for that reason a heart may be the badge of a (non-operational-) military official.


Left: St. Demetrios. Constantinople, 1st half 11th century [9]

Right: Proedros Dekanos. (President of  Chiefs of Ten)


Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV (1068-’71)

King Geza I of Hungary (1074-’77)


Both are dressed in Byzantine official dress strewn with golden hearts.


Byzantine official on the Pala d’Oro


Also some other persons represented on the Pala d’Oro (1102) have official dresses strewn with hearts.


Not long after the end of the House of Comnenus in Byzantium the heart appeared in West European heraldry. They are on a pilow found in the shrine of King Canute IV of Denmark (†1086) and on the arms of King Canute VI of Denmark (1182-1202) on his seal of 1190.  The symbol was probably transmitted through the Byzantine-Scandinavian connection of the Varangian Guard, created in 988. This connection went from Byzantium through Novgorod and Uppsala and lasted until the middle of the 14th century. Also Harald III, King of Norway (1045-1066) had served for some time in the Byzantine Army as a mercenary: [10]

Seal of  King Canute VI, 1190 ca


Arms: Strewn with hearts, thre lions passant guardant. L.: …………q rex. [11]


The hearts remained on the arms of the Danish kings until the present day.


King Valdemar Atterdag of Denmark (1340-’75)

On a fresco in St. Peter’s Church in Naestved, painted shortly after his death.


On this fresco the hearts from the arms are on the purple tunic of the king. The lambrequines are strewn with black hearts instead of being ermine which is quite unusual. 

The arms strewn with hearts was borne by his father Waldemar III, deposed in 1330 and since then Duke of Schleswig (†1364). This suggests that arms with the hearts were the prerogative of the head of the royal danish family, usually also King of Denmark. It looks like a continuation of the use of te symbol as a symbol of the byzantine megas primikerios here interpreted as the ‘first commander of the palace’.


Some sixty years after the appearance of the hearts on the seal of Canute II the hearts appeared also on the almost identical arms of the king of Sweden and on the arms of the Swedish jarls from the House of Bjelbo.



Heraldic Seal  of King Waldemar of Sweden, 1252


Arms: Strewn with hearts, three crowned lions passant guardant. L. .X............[SVEOR]VM (n°  15)


Heraldic Seal of  Duke Magnus Birgersson, 1270

Arms: Strewn with hearts three bends sinister a lion rampant over all. L.: ..PIS DVCIS SVEORUM  (n°  23)

These arms were borne by the kings of Sweden from 1275-1364. They were adopted by the succeeding kings without the hearts however.


An other example from the muslim world comes from the 13th century Wijnbergen Armorial which gives for Le roi de tunes:

Arms: Azure, strewn with square crosses three hearts 2& 2 Or.

This is most likely the emblem of the (christian) Megas Primikerios of the Almohad empire.


A last example are the arms of Friesland  which are probably derived from the Swedish Royal arms:

Arms of Friesland in in a French armorial

Paris, Bibliothčque Mazari­ne Ms. 3711-1288. D.: ca. 1475.


Arms: Bendy of seven pieces Azure and Argent, nine hearts Gules 1:3:3:2 in the bends Azure.

L.: Le roy de frise


In the 16th century these arms became the arms of the Groninger Ommelanden.


In about the same time (the 15th century) the hearts appear as a color on playing cards together with the clovers, tiles and pikes. Thes symbols have no other meaning than being a color of the playing cards and they can also be replaced by other figures.


From a Hungarian pack of cards, 20th cent.


From a French pack of cards, 20th century


See: Playing cards, History on internet.



Back to Main Page



© Hubert de Vries 2015-03-20



[1]  These are not of the same category as the lotus and the lily which have a different origin and meaning. See:  fleur de lis.

[2]  Antinoë: city in Egypt, founded by Hadrian.

[3]  Gyselen, Rika: La Géographie Administrative de l’Empire Sassanide. Les témoignages sigillographiques. Res Orientales, Vol. I. Paris, 1989.

[4]  Divided in two districts

[5]  Divided in two districts

[6]  Divided in three districts

[7] Berger, Pamela: The Notitia Dignitatum. Diss. 1974. Revised ed. 1981. P. 76

[8]  San Marco Cathedral, Venice. About the Hungarian crowns thwere exists aabundant literature

[9]  Berlin. Staatlicher Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz. Kunstgewerbemuseum, inv. n° 27,21. Also: Enkolpion with St Demetrios, Constantinople, ca. 1000 AD. Domschatz Halberstadt, 16a., the clamys strewn with golden hearts.

[10]  See: King Harald's Saga. Penguin Classics, 1966.

[11] ca 1190, Ark. i Schwerin O 31. Afb. i Aarb. f. Nord. Oldk. 1882. D.H.R. 1. 678 (formindsket) og Fabricius: Danm. Hist. ny. Udg. 1. 265 (ligl). (Petersen , 5a-b.)