Devotion to the Sacred Heart is deeply rooted in the traditions of the Latin Church. Its prompt to compassionate meditation on the sufferings of Christ, to gratitude and contrition, is venerable. Less so is the iconography that attaches to its modern form. 

Artist Unknown (17th C.) Chambre des Reliques, Paray-le-Monial

Promoted in conformity to Margaret Mary Alacoque’s apparitions, the devotion’s iconic motif remains edifying to many. At the same time, that excised, free-floating organ looks mawkish, even grotesque—a physiological hovercraft— to many others. Paul Zalonski, a Benedictine Oblate and ardent defender of the devotion, states it this way:

Popular piety tends to associate a devotion with its iconographic expression. . . . Inconveniences can sometimes arise: iconographic expressions that no longer respond to the artistic taste of the people can sometimes lead to a diminished appreciation of the devotion’s object, independently of its theological basis and its historico-salvific content.

Certainly, the handiworks of pictorial imagination have their seasons. But change in the weather here is owed to currents deeper than mere taste. Patterned amid intellectual ferments of the Age of Discovery, the archetypal emblem of the Sacred Heart once resonated with an extra-religious charge that lost piquancy ahead of the piety that drew upon it.

Two key excitements informed the trope: Renaissance revival of dissection, plus European dissemination of priestly copies of Aztec and Maya codices. Lifting of medieval interdict against dissection triggered a revolution in knowledge of the structure and mechanics of the heart. Simultaneously, pre-Columian codices carried the frisson of ethnographic spectacles never before seen or imagined. For the first time, Europeans witnessed other peoples and their practices—specifically, ritual heart extraction.

Leonardo da Vinci. Anatomical Study of the Heart (c. 1500)



Codex Magliabicciano, Museo de America, Madrid


Biblical language is infused with references to the heart as proxy for all that it means to be human. Exodus spoke of “all whose hearts were stirred and whose spirits were moved.” Jesus, too, relied on the same metaphoric device: Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, with all thy heart, and all thy soul, and all thy might.

Origins of Sacred Heart devotion trace back to the second century apologists. Justin Martyr (d. 165) identified Christians as “the true Israel which springs from Christ, for we are carved out of His heart.” Irenaeus (d. 145) defined the Church as “the fountain of the living water that flows to us from the Heart of Christ.” Both men were approximate contemporaries of Galen, who affirmed ancient ideas of the heart as the seat of sensation and the organ nearest the soul.

The history of the Sacred Heart is yoked to the longue durée of man’s understanding of the heart itself, both anatomically and in symbolic terms. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the heart was as much an object of exploration as the New World. Its topography, newly surveyed and mapped, was exhilarating territory. Andreas Vesalius put back Adam’s missing rib; William Harvey toppled Galen. 

Andreas Vesalius. Engraving from Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543)


 Discovery of the circulatory system encouraged debate about whether the soul could be said to have a recognizable home. Images of the human heart of Christ, palpably and convincingly pictorial, combined scientific expeditions into anatomy with the age-old understanding of the heart as the identifiable, if symbolic, home of the soul.

Arriving in the wake of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises Margaret Mary’s apparitions followed suit with a program (the nine First Fridays), and a mission (to propagate the devotion). Ignatian emphasis on interior visualization to assist meditation prepared ground for the later saint’s visionary endorsement of real images.

While the historical Passion found embodiment in a wealth of visual models, Sacred Heart devotion had depended traditionally on vivid verbal imagery. The language of contemplative prayer and devotional texts had been the reigning prod to empathy. But now explicit depiction had a mandate: “I will bless those places wherein the image of My Sacred Heart shall be exposed and venerated.”


Artist Unknown. Engraved endpaper (17th C.) 


Jesuits had a fitting image ready in hand. However unlikely a cloistered nun had seen depictions of Aztec heart extraction, Jesuits were among the literate elites who did. With a keen eye for pertinence, they were already applying images like the one above—quickened with the temper of the age—to endpapers of books, sometimes to church walls. Claude de la Columbière, Margaret Mary’s confessor and enthusiast, was a Jesuit.

By now, scenes of pre-Columbian practices have dwindled into Art. And we greet the human heart as a pump that can be primed, even replaced. History has drained vigor from the Sacred Heart’s seminal image. What remains is a bleached convention unequal to a revered devotion. 

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Articles by Maureen Mullarkey

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