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The Sacred Heart is a rich and important devotion. But its iconography lacks theological vim

Attempts to convey Christ’s love for humanity in art have, it seems to me, had limited success

By on Friday, 15 June 2012

Pompeo Batoni's 1767 Sacred Heart

Pompeo Batoni's 1767 Sacred Heart

Today is the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, so a very happy feast day to all readers! Last year I wrote on the importance that I attach to this feast, and how theologically rich I find it. Given that so many churches and schools are dedicated to the Sacred Heart, it is clear that historically devotion to the Sacred Heart has played a central role in Catholic life. Therefore, it seems to me, the more we can promote this devotion today, the more we promote the Church and its mission.

One difficulty I do have with the Sacred Heart, though, is the iconography. Pompeo Batoni was the most wonderful painter, and famous for his portraits of various English grand tourists which are still to be found in most art galleries in the western world. But he was also responsible for the picture of the Sacred Heart that hangs in the Church of the Gesù, in Rome. Naturally enough, it is this Sacred Heart that is Batoni’s most reproduced picture, which may have something to do with the Jesuit promotion of the devotion. But it is a pity, as this is the one picture of Batoni’s that I find not much good from an artistic point of view – or a theological point of view too, if truth be told. One sees from looking at this image that Christ loves us, but… This is not quite the idea of the love of Christ that is conveyed, shall we say, by the Scriptures. Batoni’s picture is sentimental, soppy, lacking in robustness, devoid of theological vim.

What should a picture of Jesus look like? What should a portrait convey of his blessed humanity? Attempts to convey the love of the Saviour for suffering humanity in art have had limited success, it seems to me. Even Michelangelo never quite made it, if his Christ that is to be found in Santa Maria sopra Minerva is anything to go by.

The best representations of Christ’s love are usually to be found, I think, in crucifixes. My all time favourite has to be the crucifixion scene of Guido Reni, which to my mind captures the right blend of joy and sacrifice. And then, of course, there is the greatest image of Christ of all: the Shroud of Turin, which was made, perhaps, not by human hands. The majestic face of the Shroud points to the transcendent love of God made incarnate in the flesh of Christ like no other image.

  • Apostolic

    In Ireland and elsewhere, devotion to the Sacred Heart provided a welcome and necessary antidote to neo-Jansenist and unforgiving doom and gloom and – ironically given the current attitude of Irish Redemptorists – against the baneful puritanism and hellfire authoritarianism of that Order (despite the compassion of St Alphonsus Liguouri.

  • pat21

    Although it may not be to everyone’s taste, I was very struck by the Eucharistic and Sacred Heart of Jesus statue, which is in the convent at Coimbra where the Fatima seer, Sister Lucia, lived.  The statue is in the public chapel near a statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.  The only picture I can find of these statues online is on this webpage:-  I understand that Our Lord told Sr Lucia how he wanted the statue to be made.  He is depicted holding the chalice under His Sacred Heart, and holding out the Most Blessed Sacrament in his hand.  They are both beautiful representations of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts.

  • pat21
  • Anon

    Maryvale College in Birmingham has England’s oldest (and smallest?) Sacred Heart Chapel, with a handsome depiction in stained glass, brought from Italy.The story of its journey, and survival during WW2 is quite moving.

  • Sonofthunder

    Surely the best representations of Christ at all are in the icons, particularly Christ in Majesty, which was once the most popular depiction of Christ in the West.

    The soppy, drippy images of the Sacred Heart (and the Divine Mercy, actually) are simply symptoms of the wider malaise of the baroque in Catholicism, a sentimentalist corruption of the principles underpinning the Council of Trent (which nearly banned polyphony), and which must be hacked out before a true renewal can begin.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Not sure I agree. We need to renew our Western tradition. There is nothing wrong with Guido Reni, to my mind. But some good modern art is something we desperately need. The lack of it leads to an impoverished theology and devotional life.

  • Kim Hatton

    I am yet to find a good representation of The Sacred Heart and maybe this is because it isn’t a devotion covered by Eastern Orthodoxy which has given us by far the best religious art. In western depictions sentimentality so often prevails.

  • Dismas

    I also wouldn’t mind seeing the Sacred Heart of Jesus depicted with the Christ in Majesty image from the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Wash. DC as well:

  • Dismas

    I’m with Sonofthunder, just read his comment.

  • Jill Fallon

    A Sacred Heart icon by Nancy Oliphant is one I like very much . You can find it at Bridge Building Images at

  • Honeybadger

    The Sacred Heart of Jesus has been my favourite devotion since I was a child. We always had a depiction of the Sacred Heart in the home either in the form of a statue or a picture. I gave one to a friend who recently moved house.

    I feel that a house is not a home without one.

    I recently bought a medal with the Sacred Heart after looking for one that had rich detail, colour and no ‘mushy stuff.’ When I went to have it blessed by my PP, he was taken with it too.  I had to order it from the USA because the only ones available that I saw were either in 9ct gold or weren’t as good in the detail… but it was worth it!

    One of my favourite depictions of The Sacred Heart is an Italian-sculpted, life-like candle-blackened statue in my parish church. The Heart – complete with crown of thorns, wound and cross –  is painted entirely in gold with subtle gold rays streaming from it. Jesus’ face is expressive yet serene. If I could buy one like it for my home!

    There is nothing fluffy nor sentimental about the statue – that’s what makes me stand there and contemplate it for ages.

    Why aren’t priests promoting house blessings involving enthroning pictures? Or do they think it is not trendy enough?

  • Parasum

    Very briefly off-topic:

    Shouldn’t there be some mention of the alleged identification of (some of) the relics of St. John the Baptist ? If Ruth Gledhill can write about it for “The Times”, surely the CH should cover it ?

    The Telegraph has this:

  • Parasum

    So true. They are no better than those hideous Counter-Reformation *putti* with ample backsides, that pass for cherubs. Biblical angels, as C. S. Lewis remarked, say “Fear not” – whereas Victorian angels (he could with equal justice have included Victorian Christs, such as the Sacred Heart) say “There, there.” IOW, Biblical angels, and angels in ikons (*not* including the would-be ikons that have recently become popular in the West), are numinous. How much Catholic art today is numinous, and not simply an echo of the tawdriness of life ? Is that monstrosity in the Vatican than confuses the Resurrection with a nuclear blast, numinous ? Is it a window into Heaven ? How can it be, when it is almost deliberately ugly ? Catholicism today has no sense of beauty. How can it, when it nominates non-Christians to build Catholic Churches ? :(

  • Lance Eccles

    While there are many wonderful examples of Western religious art, I agree that the Sacred Heart and the Divine Mercy are not among them. I wanted a Divine Mercy painting, but I couldn’t stand the ones I’d seen, so I got an icon artist to paint one for me. I like it; It’s powerful and convincing.

  • aearon43

    Salvador Dali did a Sacred Heart painting:
    I can’t really tell if I like it or not. Not really sure what the deal is with the rectangular box structure in the center. But it’s interesting, and, at least, not too mushy.

  • Bridget

    Yes the devotion is uplifting and inspirational. I find it so sad that this article and some of the comments accompanying it have reduced it to a competition amongst arty farty people as to how high brow artistic appreciation of Christ has to be before certain people feel able to associate with it. The traditional image keeps watch in my home as it does in countless others throughout Ireland and quite frankly the merits of the artist are of no consequence.

  • Jack Isaacks

    No respectable Orthodox or Eastern Catholic will have ANYTHING from Bridge Building Images. As one REAL Iconographer said, they only build bridges to hell.

    Eastern Iconography is supposed to be an expression of the faith of the church, not the personal ideas of the painter.

  • Jack Isaacks

    This statue looks too much like a New Age church’s idea of a communion service I heard about. The preacherette told the congregregation, “Now close your eyes, and imagine Jesus giving you bread and wine.”

  • Cassandra

    I agree! There is an excellent Eastern Orthodox Icon (13th Century) to be found in the National  Museum of Ohrid. 
    Also the the West has never taken the rulings of Nicaei 2 seriously!! 

  • ann

    Comparing an image of the Sacred Heart to an image of the crucifix is like comparing apples to oranges.  The meaning/history/theology is incredibly different.  Both depict God’s love, but from different perspectives.  I agree, the crucifix is the most complete image of love, but that does not negate the legitimacy of the Sacred Heart. 

    Also, if you are going to talk about an artist’s work, please use the original and not a bad reproduction.  If you must compare the image that you are using in this article, then you would have to stand it next to a cheap crucifix from a factory in China.  The original Bartoni can be seen here   ( ).  The mass produced christian “art”/kitsch  that floods are gift shops are in a category than original paintings.

  • Joe DePrisco

    I was told by a priest from the FSSP that images of the sacred heart that showed the Heart in Jesus’s hand or apart from His Body in anyway were forbidden — placed on the forbidden images list.  The reason was because they led to theological problems — not that the art was bad or the intention of the artist was suspect.  Of course nowadays, there is no more forbidden images list.  But I agree that images of the Sacred Heart if they are apart from the Body in anyway or in His Hand, are problematic.  The Church needs to resurrect the forbidden images list.

  • aearon43

    A bit harsh…?

  • st.olaf’s kid

    Interesting problem — today every Catholic, it seems, is writing about the Faith — in websites,on blogs, in books, (places like here!) yet where are the Catholic artists?  I have Protestant friends who react with immediate respect to Catholic ideas and doctrines, but they are totally creeped out by sentimental, 400-year-old paintings of Jesus looking like a Beverly Hills interior decorator or — even worse — holding His heart in His hand. 

  • cephas2

    I especially love the Sacred Heart picture published by Divine Mercy Publications in Maryville, Skerries, Co Dublin. It’s probably not considered a great piece of art but that is not the point Father, is it?

  • Christian Unachukwu msp

    In as much as we want to bring out to the whole wide world the nature and beauty of the Heart so dear and loving, it does not have to appear surgically extracted. Love lives in the Heart and could be painted in such a way that it appears natural in the BODY OF JESUS. I think i have had this problem for a long period of time and thank God other people are thinking in that light. Painting has to meet with pure and natural imagination in order to bring out the perfect intention and thought.

  • Cs

    I’d be the first to reject “soppy, sentimentalist, theologically deviant” images, but I would not classify the Sacred Heart image here as any of those things. Christ is soft and serene, recalling his desire for us to lay our heads upon his chest, to take his yoke upon us which is light. His heart and hands are pierced out of sacrificial love, and the rays of brilliant light reflect, theologically, the illuminating brilliance of the torrents of grace that flood into our lives when we imitate the Son. The heart is surmounted by the cross, because it is the cross that must be top and center of our own lives in order to have them properly ordered and fully pleasing to God the Father. His clothing is in the traditional blue outer cloth and red inner cloth, blue to symbolize his fleshy human nature, and red to symbolize his spiritual divine nature. This image is rich, powerful, worthy of contemplation, and illuminating.

    While the crucifix is the perfect Icon of the love of God for us, and the perfect Icon of the vocation of all of us, no matter our state, it would be a loss if that were the only licit image of the Deity.

    tl;dr I respectfully, completely, disagree with this article.

  • theroadmaster

    The Sacred Heart image, which some might categorize as an over-sentimentalized version of Christ, is still a profound reminder of the Divine Mercy which the Savior has poured out continuously for Mankind, since His death and consequent Resurrection.  This iconic image became a favorite focus for Catholic piety across Europe through the patronage of the Jesuits, in the wake of the great Tridentine reforms of the 17th Century.  Such devotions were downgraded following the liturgical changes of Vatican 11 but religious intellectual snobbery cannot be allowed to undermine the inherent worth of the Sacred Heart, which has biblical and mystical foundations.

  • pat21

    Well, I can only say that Sister Lucia of Fatima – a recognised seer of the Catholic Church, on her way to beatification, saw this image and Our Lord asked her to have a statue of Him represented in this way – not giving us ‘bread and wine’ as Jack Isaacks suggested, as that is a protestant concept – but giving us His Most Precious Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.

  • Alberto

    Well, father, I suppose you are a child of the Second VAtican Council, so you can’t help to find the Sacred Heart imaginary somehow too Catholic. It’s a matter, to quote a word you use in other entry, of inconmensurability.

  • Shanti

     I absolutely agree with your point. This painting was done centuries ago
    but I believe this was divinely inspired. I remember last year, I was
    at the Adoration Chapel, I was talking to Jesus when at the point of
    silence I closed my eyes and saw an image of  a left hand holding a
    heart. It’s like what’s in Batoni’s painting although there was no
    flames, thorns and a cross. I believe that God send messages to us in
    different ways. We should not question God’s ways. Also, there are some
    people who may be uncomfortable in sharing or discussing their “visions”
    to avoid people’s harsh judgements. This painter may be one of them.

  • jesus doesnt exist!!!123

    comon be real, wtf is all is this crap. its a waste of our time, he doesnt exist. let me tell u again to get it in ur head. JESUS  DOESNT EXIST!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! xxxxxx