The Archetypal Heart

“I take Thee, O Sacred Heart, for the sole object of my love, the protection of my life, the pledge of my salvation, the remedy of my frailty and inconstancy, the reparation for all the defects of my life, and my secure refuge at the hour of my death.” With these fervent words of devotion, Saint Marguerite Marie Alacoque (1647–1690) first prayed to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Since then, generations of the faithful have approached images of the Sacred Heart inspired by her visions with similar words of reverence and devotion. But what of the secular reader? How do we approach the collection of Sacred Heart images found in this book? How do we approach this assembly of bleeding, pierced, and viscerally wounded red hearts? Some encircled in the vise of a crown of thorns portrayed in anatomical precision, some as sweetly as valentine hearts? What to make of the Sacred Hearts of artists as varied as Lucas Cranach the Younger, Pompeo Batoni, Odilon Redon, or Salvador Dali, not to mention the crop of contemporary “outsider” artist who have appropriated this image, when juxtaposed against the cloying sentimentality of the hearts depicted on Catholic prayer cards?

A cohesive devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus emerged as a Church sanctioned phenomenon only in the late 17th century when it spread through both Catholic and initially Protestant Europe. In Catholic circles, devotion to Jesus’ heart was most zealously promoted by succession of influential French Jesuits. A number of the images of the heart of Jesus, however, predate the 17th century, and cannot therefore be directly related to that century’s devotional practices. Yet, they are crucial to this discussion because they are proof that the heart of Jesus stood as a powerful symbol of Divine presence much earlier than the 17th century.

The 20th century German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner recognized this powerful symbolic function of Christ’s heart. He described the word heart “as a primordial word, an archetypal symbol that says something about a person’s innermost center, depth and ultimate unity.” To understand Rahner’s deceptively simple definition requires elucidation of the set of complex concepts of symbol, archetype, and Self, borrowed from Jungian psychology, that stands behind it.

The English word symbol comes from the ancient Greek word symbolon, which in turn was derived from the preposition syn (“together, common, simultaneous with, or according to”) and the noun bolon (what has been thrown”) from the verb ballo (“to throw”). The Greeks thought of a symbolon as a tally which originally was a notched stick used in commerce, split in lengthwise, the seller keeping one half, the buyer the other. In this sense, a symbolon or tally was two halves of the same object, which when put together reconstituted the object. Such a tally could be used to provide proof of identity; for instance, the legitimacy of a banker’s order could be verified by a symbolon or tally that accompanied the order, familiar and recognizable to a second party who possessed the other half of the tally. Based on its original connotation, we might say a symbol is constituted of two halves, which in order to fulfill its function must be recognized by a least two individuals, or two groups of people, and thus serves to link and connect them.

For the founder of analytical psychology Carl Jung, the concept and function of a symbol, while shadowing the original Greek conception, was rather more complex. For him, a symbol was the manifestation of a function that allowed psychic energy (in Freudian terms the libido) to be transformed into artistic, religious, and scientific achievement. According to Jung, a “true symbol…should be understood as the expression of an intuitive perception which can as yet, neither be apprehended, or expressed differently.” Symbols, like myths and rituals, were a manifestation of an innate pattern of psychological behavior or disposition. These innate patterns he termed archetypes. Jung postulated that archetypes were fundamental components of the collective unconscious that affect an individual’s conscious behavior. An archetype was not a particular perception, feeling, intuition, or thought, but rather an inherited subconscious idea, image, or feeling that became manifest during a person’s lifetime of experience and influenced the “I” or self-conscious (for both Jung and Freud, ego) driven behavior.

When Rahner proffered that the Sacred Heart be seen as “archetypal symbol that says something about a person’s innermost center, depth and ultimate unity,” he is suggesting that images of Christ’s bleeding heart, like the ones collected here, are a conscious manifestation of an unconscious archetype. These manifestations of the archetype of the heart are revelatory of a person’s “innermost center,” a psychological component Jung designated the Self.

From this perspective, each image in this book, whether by Salvador Dali or an unknown 15th century artist, tells the story of consciousness and its relationship with the collective unconscious at that particular moment in time. And since the archetype is an unconscious process that may only be known through conscious behavior, it may be argued that the images of the bleeding heart express the relationship between the Self and the ego. Through images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the ego recognizes the Divine within.

In Karl Rahner’s quote above it is unclear whether his “ultimate unity” corresponds to Jung’s collective unconscious. In considering the images of the Sacred Heart, we might marvel at their similarity over times and places. Should we then conclude that a “person’s innermost center” (Jung’s Self) is a universal entity, an essential element of the collective unconscious?

In his Psychological Types, Jung defined the collective unconscious’ content as an entity that,
“does not originate in a personal acquisition, but in the inherited possibility of psychic functioning in general, namely, in the inherited brain-structure. These are mythological associations—those motives and images, which can spring anew in every age and clime, without historical tradition or migration. I term these contents the collective unconscious. Just as conscious contents are engaged in a definite activity, the unconscious contents…are similarly active. Just as certain results or products proceed from conscious psychic activity, there are also products of unconscious activity, as for instance dreams and fantasies.”

Religion, too, was seen by Jung as a product of unconscious activity. In a Jungian interpretation, we imagine God because we have a Self. Religion becomes the vehicle to manifest the archetype that pushes us to find meaning and seek relationship with Self. In Symbols of Tranformation, Jung wrote, “Christ, as hero and god-man, signifies psychologically the Self; that is he represents the projection of this most important and most central of archetypes. The archetype of the Self has, functionally, the significance of a ruler of the inner world—of the collective unconscious.” The bleeding heart, shown as being worshipped, or in the act of transiting between Christ and the devout then expresses in symbolic terms this archetypal relationship; in the image of Christ we recognize the echo of our own divine nature. This does not imply a denial of the historicity of Christ as man/son of God, rather it recognizes that the image of Christ, like the images of the Sacred Heart, also articulates the profound truth that His story is our story. Thus both faithful and secular viewer may recognize the truth of the Christian mystery as either a Divine or personal universal. The faithful recognize the archetype of the Sacred Heart as embodying the unity of the conscious ego with the Divine; the secular recognize it as the unity of the ego and the Self.

Liliana Leopardi
Professor of Art History
Chapman University
Orange, California

September 15, 2009