Ever since I encountered Portugal’s exquisite filigree jewellery, I’ve been fascinated by one of the most popular designs, the Viana heart. Many Portuguese souvenirs and contemporary designs now sport this distinctively curved heart with its crown-like growth at the top so you’re bound to see it at some point.
But what’s the story behind the shape? It took me ages, and a trip to Viana do Castelo, which has adopted the wonky heart as its emblem, to find out.
When I mentioned my unsatisfied curiosity to my guides for the day, they took me straight to goldsmith Manuel Freitas Rodrigues at his jewellery shop, Ourivesaria Freitas. His family have been in the business since 1920 and over the years have designed and produced countless pieces, many of which are now on display in the jewellery section of the city’s Museu do Traje (Costume Museum).
Sr. Freitas was thrilled to have the opportunity to share his passion for his craft. As he explained the history of the hearts to me, he had his staff bring out various stunning examples of Viana hearts and the traditional earrings from Viana do Castelo, arrecadas de Viana.
The heart of the matter
Back in Ancient Greece, the heart was considered to be the centre of life and the source of charity, brotherhood and, of course, love. Much later, these attributes morphed into religious depictions of saints with their hearts showing outside their chest, often surrounded by flames to amplify the warmth and strength of the love stemming from the organ.
The cult of the Sacred Heart of Jesus first introduced these external flaming hearts to Portugal at the end of the 18th century. The basilica at Santa Luzia that overlooks the city of Viana do Castelo is also called the Temple of the Sacred Heart of Christ so there’s a strong local connection with this symbology.
Hearts of gold
The extra part that sits atop the Viana heart and gives it its distinctive shape is a stylised version of these flames. The twist in the tail of the heart remains a mystery, however. Sr. Freitas shrugged and told me it was most likely a design that became fashionable and later developed into a firm feature of the golden hearts from the Minho region.
The filigree hearts weren’t originally very popular given the labour and skill involved in creating them. Other more common forms involved sheet metal beaten to form a hollow heart or more elaborate embossed gold. These days, you’re far more likely to see the filigree version. They certainly look prettier and more romantic.
You can find Viana heart jewellery on Amazon, although it’s not the real deal gold stuff.
The Viana heart has captured the imagination of other Portuguese creatives and you’ll also find it incorporated into the beautifully embroidered handkerchiefs of love, also from the Minho region, as well as murals, contemporary art and street decorations.
Order your version of a Viana Heart
I also like the artwork by Ana Marques – she blends her love for Portuguese tiles with the iconic Viana heart shape to create this design, available in various formats.
Have you spotted the Viana heart in any unusual places on your travels in Portugal or elsewhere?