Friday, June 23, 2017

The Sacred Heart of Jesus—An Iconographic Introduction

Typical 20th Century "holy card" image of the Sacred Heart

Most Catholics are aware of the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the kitschy images that currently go with it.  According to most information about it the devotion dates back to the late seventeenth century, to the apparition of Jesus to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, a Visitation nun living in a Visitation monastery at Paray-le-Monial in the Franche-Comte region of east-central France.  In these apparitions Jesus is said to have appeared to her and, among other things, requested that pictures of His Sacred Heart should be set up and venerated in churches and homes.  He also made several promises that people who venerate His Heart would receive special graces for their lives.1 

In addition, like the reverence shown to the Body and Blood of Christ, the devotion to the Sacred Heart calls attention to the “burning love” for humanity that led the Second Person of the Holy Trinity to become a man and to die the sacrificial death of Calvary for the salvation of fallen creation.2   As such it is a powerful image for meditation on the love of God for His people.  However, the recent “traditional” images that have been associated with the devotion have obscured its immense power. 

The image of the Sacred Heart underwent many changes from the time of Saint Margaret Mary to the present until it became a piece of Catholic kitsch, off-putting to many.  As one description that I read recently described it “So often one looks at pictures of The Sacred Heart and sees a female face, even though it has a beard!”3   This is, unfortunately, often true.  But it wasn’t always so.

In fact, the image of the Sacred Heart has a long history, going back at least 200 years prior to Saint Margaret Mary’s visions.  Indeed, the back history of the image may have contributed greatly to the image she and her followers promoted.   Very little about the image was actually new.

From the Sixth Century to the Middle Ages

It all begins with images of the crucified Jesus being pierced by a Roman spear, causing blood to issue from His wounded side, and with the image of the Man of Sorrows, the devotional image in which the figure of Christ, scourged and crowned with thorns, displays His wounds for veneration.

From the Rabbula Gospels
Syrian (Beth Zagba), c.586
Florence, Bibliotheca Medicea-Laurenziana
MS. Plut. I. 56, fol. 12v-13r

From the Sacramentary of Gellone
French, c. 775-800
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
Latin 12048, fol. 143v

Last Judgment with Christ as the Man of Sorrows Surrounded by Angels Holding the Instruments of the Passion
From A jugement et des xv signes
Northern French, c. 1250-1300
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Arsenal 3516, fol. 154v (detail)

The Man of Sorrows

Most especially it goes back to those Man of Sorrows images in which Christ is shown with open eyes, engaging the viewer.  In these “awake” images the figure of Christ often calls attention to His wounded side.

Master Francke, The Man of Sorrows
German, c. 1430
Hamburg, Kunsthalle

Petrus Christus, The Man of Sorrows
Flemish, c. 1444-1448
Birmingham, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

Hans Memling, The Man of Sorrows
German, After 1490
Esztergom, Christian Museum

Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, The Man of Sorrows
Dutch, c. 1510
Antwerp, Museum Mayer van den Bergh

Devotion to the Five Wounds of Christ

The emphasis on the Crucifixion and to the wounded side of Christ resulted in the rise of devotion to the Five Wounds of Christ, which was a very wide spread late medieval devotion.  The five wounds are to the hands, feet and heart of Christ, since the spear thrust to His side reached His heart.4  We possess many records of the popularity of this image in the period just before and after the beginning date for the rise of Protestantism in 1517.

Wound of Christ Actual Size
from a Book of Hours
France (Verdun or Paris), c.1375
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M90, fol. 130r

The Pierced Heart of Jesus
German Woodcut, c. 1450-1499
Washington, National Gallery of Art

Composite Window of English Stained Glass
English, 15th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
This composite window, made up of panels from several locations, includes three panels with the Five Wounds, showing how ubiquitous these panels must have been in English churches before the Henrician/Edwardian Reformation. The three panels are: top right panel, bottom panels: second from the left (shown below left in detail) and second from the right.

The Five Wounds of Christ
Composite Window of Stained Glass
English, 15th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Angel with the Five Wounds of Christ
Stained Glass
English, 15th Century
Glastonbury, Abbey

The Five Wounds of Christ
from a Psalter
Dutch (Den Bosch, Monastery of Marienwater), 1468
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB134 C 60, fol. 245v

The Five Wounds of Christ
Single Leaf from a Manuscript
German, 1469
Austin , University  of Texas at Austin
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center

The Five Wounds of Christ with the Christ  Child in the Sacred Heart
German, 1475-1480
Washington, National Gallery of Art

Five Wounds of Christ
German, 1484-1500
London, British Museum

The Sacred Heart of Jesus
from a Prayer Roll
English, 1495-1505
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G 39, fol. 5r

Two of the Five Wounds of Christ
from a Book of Hours
Flemish (Bruges), c.1500
London, British Library
MS King's 9, fol. 143v-144

As has been demonstrated by Eamon Duffy and other historians, the devotion to the Five Wounds was extremely strong and tenacious.   In 1536 Catholics in northern England revolted against the religious changes which had followed King Henry VIII’s break with Rome in what is known as the Pilgrimage of Grace.  They adopted the Five Wounds as their symbol.5
The Five Wounds of Christ
Page from a Medical and Religious Miscellany
English, c. 1475-1550
London, British Library
MS Sloane 1584, fol. 26v-27

Sigmund Grimm, The Five Wounds of Christ
German (Augsburg), c.1520
London, British Museum

Simon Bening, Miraculous Mass of the Five Wounds of Christ
from the Da Costa Hours
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1510-1520
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M399, fol. 36v

Simon Bening, Worship of the Five Wounds of Christ
fromPrayer Book of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg
Flemish, c. 1525-1530
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS Ludwig IX 19, fol. 335v

The Heart Alone

During the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the wounds to hands and feet ceased to be included and the focus shifted to the wound to the Heart alone.  Sometimes this appeared as a devotion to the side wound by itself and sometimes the Heart.  At this point the Heart still resembled a Valentine’s Day heart, that is, a flat, two-dimensional representation of a heart. 

Lucas Cranach Elder, Adoration of the Sacred Heart
German, 1505
London, British Museum

By the end of the sixteenth century flames had begun to appear.  Initially they began to appear around the heart and then as if emerging from it.

Antonie Wierix, Adoration of the Sacred Heart
of Jesus
Flemish, 1595
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum

Engraving after Martin De Vos, Charity
Flemish, c. 1600
Vendome, Musee de Vendome

Abraham Aubry after Johann Toussyn
The Five Wounds of Christ
German, c. 1651-1700
Braunschweig, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum

Matthias Greuter, Blessed Philip Neri (now a Saint)
German, 1606
Rome, Biblioteca Vallicelliana
The Angel at the left holds a flaming heart.  It is unclear whether this is a reference to the ardent heart of Saint Philip 
Neri or the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  I include it as representative of the addition of flames to the heart image.

Enter Saint Margaret Mary

This is the point at which Saint Margaret Mary’s apparitions occur. The first image she created, in 1685, belongs in this lineage.  The only really new element is the crown of thorns, which she shows as if it were a wreath encircling the heart.

Marguerite Marie Alacoque, First Image of the Sacred Heart by Saint Margaret Mary
French, 1685
Paray-le-Monial, Sisters of the Visitation

From there the image underwent several changes.  While some pictures retained the crown of thorns as a wreath, others applied it directly to the heart or omitted it altogether.  Still others combined it with a new image of the Sacred Heart of Mary, which showed a similar heart pierced by a sword and encircled with a wreath of roses. 

Adoration of Sacred Heart
French, 1690
Rennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts
In this engraving Saint Margaret Mary (who is holdinga flaming heart, possibly her own) and a Bishop kneel in adoration before Margaret Mary's image of the Sacred Heart. Below the Sacred Heart, the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph also kneel in adoration. They hold a banner which reads "Consecrate yourself to the Heart of my Son, His grace will lead you to the door of Salvation".

Adoration of Sacred Heart
French, 18th Century
Rennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts
In this image Christ appears as one of the Trinity, separate from His heart, which is adored by angels.. The crown of thorns surrounds an image of Christ Crucified in the center of the Heart.

Pierre Drevet, Saint Jean Eudes
French, c. 1700
Versailles, Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon
Shortly before the apparitions to Saint Margaret Mary began Saint Jean Eudes had also been encouraging veneration of 
the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  The caption reads "Eudes (Jean) Founder of many Seminaries and Celebrated Missionary,
died 1680".

N. Chasteau, Image of the Sacred Heart
From a Lay Prayer book for Mass at the Agnus Dei
French, 1700-1750
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 84, fol. 43

N. Chasteau, Image of the Sacred Heart
From a Lay Prayer book for Mass at the Litany of the Virgin
French, 1700-1750
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 84, fol. 96

A Realistic Heart

Another development was in the form of the heart itself.  In the course of the eighteenth century it went from being a two-dimensional Valentine heart to an anatomically correct heart rendered in scientific detail.

Michael Christoph Grabenberger and Michael Georg Grabenberger, Sacred Heart of Jesus
German, c. 1700
Lambach (AU), Benedictine Monastery

Angels Adore the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Presence of the Trinity
French, 1700-1725
Paray-le-Monial, Musée du Hieron

Blue Monochrome Ceramic Plaque
Angels Adoring the Sacred Heart of Jesus
French (Sevres), c.1725-1751
Sevres, Cité de la ceramique

Charles Natoire, The Sacred Heart of Jesus
Frontispiece of De Cultu Sacro Sancti. Cordis Dei ac Domini Nostri J. Christi by Joseph de Galliffet
French, 1726
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
The very realistic image of the Sacred Heart was a bit too realistic for most viewers. Although the explicit anatomical details of the heart were not reproduced by others, the characteristic shape of the human heart was henceforward the preferred image.
The amount of detail diminished almost immediately after it was introduced, probably indicating that people were a bit uncomfortable with that level of reality, but the shape of the heart remained changed. Going forward, in the majority of cases, the heart would retain the actual shape of a real heart.

In addition, the position of the Crown of Thorns changed.  In the early images, based on the drawing by Saint Margaret Mary, the Crown had been a frame against which the Heart was positioned.  In the course of the eighteenth century the Crown began to be depicted as wrapped around the Heart.  This change added a new dimension of suffering to the depiction of the burning Heart. This became the nearly universal image of the Sacred Heart from this time forward.

Bartolomeo Letterini, The Sacred Heart Adored by the Madonna and Saints
Italian, c. 1730
Venice, Church of San Canciano

Ferdinand Delamonce, Adoration of the Sacred Heart
"Venient et Adorabunt" (Frontispiece) of L'excellence de la devotion au Coeur adorable de Jesus-Christ by Joseph de Galliffet
Published at Lyon, 1733
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France

Charles Lamy, Religious of Notre Dame de la Charite du Refuge in Adoration
before the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary
French, 1735
Tours, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Jean Faur Courrege, Adoration of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary
French, 1749
Tours, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Sacred Heart of Jesus
German, c. 1754
Winnweiler, Pilgrimage Church of the Holy Cross

Corrado Giaquinto, Adoration of the Holy Trinity with the Sacred Heart
Italian, 1754
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Miguel Cabrera, Sacred Heart of Jesus
Mexican, c. 1756
Mexico City, Fundacion Cultural Daniel Liebsohn, A. C.

Corrado Giaquinto, St. Margaret Mary Alacocque Contemplating the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Italian, c.1765
Private Collection

Jose de Paez, Saints Ignatius of Loyola and Louis Gonzaga  Adoring the Sacred Heart
Mexican, c.1770

Sacred Heart with Instruments of the Passion
Unknown origin and location, 18th Century

Jose de Paez, Sacred Heart Adored by Angels
Mexican, c. 1775
Mexico City, Museo Soumaya

The Exterior Heart

Up to this point all the focus had been on the heart of Jesus as a freestanding, disembodied, entity, alluding to, but not showing the figure of Christ.  A further development of the eighteenth century was the introduction of what would become the most common image of the Sacred Heart, one in which the image of the Sacred Heart appeared at the same time as the figure of Christ, appearing to be outside His body.

Pompeo Batoni, The Sacred Heart of Jesus
Italian, 1767
Rome, Church of the Gesù

This image seems to have been introduced by the artist Pompeo Batoni in a painting for the altar of a chapel in the Gesù, the mother church of the Jesuit order, in Rome.  Its location in this prominent place guaranteed that the image would have wide influence.  As it did.  It is the ancestor of most of the images since it appeared.  The principal innovation in this image is the combination of an engaging Jesus, fully clothed, offering His Heart to the viewer. 

Sacred Heart of Jesus
Italian, 1780
Rome, Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella

Sacred Heart of Jesus
Italian, 1800
Rome, Church of San Giovanni in Laterano

The Classic Image Continues

Although this image completely dominated the imagery that most people came into contact with through lithographs, sometimes hand colored, there was also a more classic strain in which the Heart was disclosed, separately from the figure of Jesus.   

Manuel Salvador Carmona, Adoration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Spanish, 1804
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Thomas Kelly, Adoration of Sacred Heart
American, c.1874
Washington, Library of Congress

Thomas Kelly, Consecration to the Sacred Heart
American, c.1874
Washington, Library of Congress

Stained Glass Window of the Sacred Heart
American, 20th Century

The Dedication of France

One of the requests of Jesus which Saint Margaret Mary revealed, was that King Louis XIV make a dedication of France to the Sacred Heart.  This was complied with and the Sacred Heart image became intertwined with the history of France, particularly with the monarchy.6

J.J.Pasquier, La devotion au Sacre Coeur de Jesus
French, 1765
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
Here Queen Marie Leczinska, wife of King Louis XV, pays homage to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Heart of Mary 
and to the Eucharist. The Hearts of Jesus and Mary are held aloft by the figure of Faith.  Hope holds the Eucharist, and Charity stands beside her.

Just as the Five Wounds of Christ had been an image that rallied the northern English against the Henrician reformation in 1536, the image of the Sacred Heart became an image that rallied those opposed to the French Revolution.  It was worn as a badge and affixed to the banners of the rebels during the anti-Revolutionary Vendean uprisings of 1793 to 1796.7

Pierre-Narcisse Guerin, Henri de la Rochejacquelin
French, 1817
Cholet, Musée Municipal

Henri de la Rochejacquelin was a leader of the Rebellion in the Vendée and Cholet was one of the centers of the revolt which was ruthlessly crushed by the Republican government in what some have termed the first modern genocide.

In spite of the crushing of the rebellion in the Vendée, the Sacred Heart remained as a symbol for the royalist faction in France.

-Eugene Delacroix, Virgin of the Sacred Heart
French, 1821
Ajaccio (Corsica), Cathedral

Jean-Leon Gerome, Bishop Belsunce Making a Vow to the Sacred Heart During the Plague in Marseilles
French, 1854
Paris, Church of Saint Severin

Hippolyte-Dominique Holfeld, The Sacred Heart Adored by All Parts of the World
French, c.1860
Dijon, Musée Magnin

In the latter years of the nineteenth century, following the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War, a great basilica was raised at the top of Montmartre hill in Paris, dedicated to reparations for the sins of France since the Revolution.  Begun in 1870, it was completed in 1914, but its consecration was postponed until 1919 due to the First World War.  It was named Sacre Coeur and is today a well-known, if little understood, feature of Paris.

Olivier Merson, H.M. Magne, R. Martin, The Sacred Heart of Jesus Adored by The Virgin Mary, St. Michael, the Pope, St. Joan of Arc and France (personified, in white)
French, 1923
Paris, Basilica of Sacre Coeur

But, during the period of the basilica’s construction the image of the Sacred Heart had evolved into a symbol of French nationality, as several items suggest.

Button, The Sacred Heart As the Hope and Salvation of France
Franco-American, 1900
Besancon, Musée du Temps

The museum notes that these buttons were made in Newark, New Jersey!

One particularly touching collection of objects that was carried by one French soldier during the First World War attests to this.  Among his possessions was a miniature flag of the French Republic, the tricolor, in which the white area bears the Sacred Heart.

First World War Personal Memorial Collection
French, 1914-1918
Dijon, Musée de la Vie Bourguinonne Perrin de Puycousin

This identification of the Sacred Heart image with France is not something that belongs solely to the past.  I was somewhat astonished when, just this week, my You Tube recommendations turned up a video of the closing Mass of The Pilgrimage to Chartres.  I was completely unaware of this event until being informed by You Tube.  It has apparently been taking place for the last 40 years.   It began as an event among traditional French Catholics but seems to have expanded to many more people in France and in other countries.  What was, however, most astonishing to me were the number of flags and other symbols carried by the pilgrims that included the image of the Sacred Heart.  Watch the first few minutes of the video below and you will see the Sacred Heart image displayed in the same fashion as the World War I soldier carried, in the center of the French tricolor.  But you will also see it alone on a white background, in the center of the German flag, in a white ground on a flag quartered with gold fleur-de-lis on blue and red backgrounds and in countless other manifestations.  

The Twentieth Century

In the twentieth century French and other artists continued to depict the image of the Sacred Heart in new and sometimes startling ways that are a far cry from the languid kitsch so familiar in religious goods stores today.

Odilon Redon, The Sacred Heart
French, 1910
Paris, Musée D'Orsay

Harry Clarke, The Sacred Heart
Irish, 1918
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

George Desvallieres, The Sacred Heart
French, 1920
Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Musée Maurice Denis-Le Prieure

Georges Roualt, The Sacred Heart
from the Passion Series
French, 1935-1936
Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou

Maurice Denis, The Sacred Heart of Jesus
French, 1939
Autun, Musée Rodin

The feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is not a fixed date.  It depends on the date of Easter.  It is celebrated on the Friday following the octave of Corpus Christi for those countries where Corpus Christi is celebrated on a Thursday or the Friday after Corpus Christi where Corpus Christi is celebrated on Sunday.  In either way of computing the day is identical.  This year, 2023, it falls on June 16th..

© M. Duffy, 2017.  Revised 2023.

  1. Information on the promises can be found at;
  2. A very thorough look at the theology behind the devotion, all of which still applies, can be found at:  Bainvel, Jean. "Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus," The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 21 Jun. 2017
  3. Comment from member of the public at
  4. John 19:34 "one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out."
  5. Duffy, Eamon.  The Stripping of the Altars:  Traditional Religion in England c. 1400-c.1580, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1992, pp. 238-248.  See also, Ethan H. Shagan, Popular Politics and the English Reformation, Cambridge (UK), Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 89-128.
  6. Edmunds, Martha Mel.  "Gabriel's Altar for the Palace Chapel at Versailles: Sacred Heart and Royal Court in Eighteenth-Century France", Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 65, No. 4 (Dec., 2006), pp.550-577.
  7. A pretty even handed summary is accessible at :
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.