The Dislocated Heart

The Sacred Heart of Jesus is one of those things that commands a mental drawer of its own. To look at it is to try comparing it with other things, but the steady, somber gaze of Jesus, augmented by the tender gesture to his blazing heart, defies easy definition. The heart is a sui generis combination of symbols and things that never lose their discontinuity in spite of their claim to constitute an emblem that one still finds everywhere centuries after it first appeared.

The heart was regarded as the seat of love by troubadours who defined courtly love in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as a chaste mixture of the sensual and the spiritual. Poetry, song, and visual art portrayed this love as an address and a contemplation, as in the French tapestry (#6; 1400), L’Offrande de Coeur, where the lover addresses the beloved in the visual discourse of a St. Valentine’s heart-shaped fruit offered in his right hand, perhaps as he extols the fidelity of his love symbolized by the dog whose tail touches his foot and paw her knee. The small heart sublimates the amorous intimacy that the lovers would enjoy as well as the extent of sacrifice the lover will undertake for his beloved, offering to her his vital organ.

It was a simultaneous gesture of erotic intimacy and self-sacrifice that the Christian mystical tradition spiritualized as an intimate relation of Christ and the human soul. A late example is a Dutch holy card by Cornelius Galle the Younger, quoting a passage from Song of Solomon, “My beloved is mine, and I am his” (#61; ca. 1660) as Jesus and his beloved exchange hearts. This erotic connection also infused the spirituality of Marguerite-Marie Alacoque in the following decade, to whom Jesus appeared. Asking her for her heart, Jesus extracted it from her chest at her pleading and placed within his own heart, where she said it was consumed as in a hot furnace.

But Marguerite-Marie remembered the mystical experience not in naturalistic depictions, but in the symbolic visual language of the emblem (#55; 1675). In doing so, she followed a pious emblematic tradition. The Catholic image of the heart emerged in the later Middle Ages as the visualization of poetic language. The heart appears with the jarring disjuncture of an extended, even strained metaphor in fifteenth-century manuscript illustrations. Consider Barthelémy d’Eyck’s Contrition and Fear of God Return a Purified Heart to Soul (#7; 1455), where ideas morph into imagery in a process of transformation that is oddly imperfect if we regard the images from the aesthetic bias of naturalism. But the scene turns quietly mysterious if we look at it through the lens of the emblematic tradition or even the twentieth-century enigmas of surrealism. Contrition and Fear of God are two allegorical figures that have leapt from the scribal page to flank a heavy cross to which is nailed the pale flesh of the human heart. The two have performed this service for the Soul, who kneels reverently before them to accept their gift. Fear of God carries a scourge at her side. Barefoot and dressed in a white habit, she is the purified and cloistered companion of the secular Contrition who joins her to present the crucified heart to the Soul, whose blue cope and position at the foot of the cross recall the humility of Mary, willing recipient of suffering. The allegory unfolds beneath the hovering sword of “Divine Justice,” suggesting that the travails of the heart are the work of providence and that the blood that runs down the cross to the breast of the Soul is shed in a redemptive process of purification that is the work of God.

But the clever allegory and the solemn legibility of the scene do not exhaust the meaning of the image. The impaled tissue atop the cross resists completely accommodating learned allusion and figural transformation into lofty ideas. It remains flesh and the brown stains beneath it refuse to dissolve into the airy substance of literary imagination. The trace of blood that issues from the slab of tautly stretched tissue is more blood than metaphor. The heart registers pain and the sharp sword looms to fix this sensation. The image is not pure emblem. The heart does no double duty. It is what it is, a piece of human flesh served up on a rude pallet of wood by the impassive servants of divine justice. Why? Because the view of the Christian life espoused by the patrons of Barthelémy d’Eyck and those who put his image to pious use framed the difficulty and purpose of human existence on the model of the life and death of Jesus. It was Jesus, after all, who prayed desperately for an alternative ending, but accepted the will of God that his flesh be nailed to a cross, where it hung in agony until his life ended beneath the steely blade of divine justice. According to a classical view of Christian redemption, Jesus satisfied the demands of divine wrath for a just sacrifice to cancel the offense of human disobedience. Blood was necessary and the suffering was real. That is the way the universe works. All human suffering takes on a new meaning as a result, seen now through the lens of Christ’s suffering and death. And so the Soul accepts her heart disciplined by the painful rigors of contrition and unflinching reverence for a God who wields a massive weapon—not as punishment, but as the means of removing the alienating effects of sin.

It is not a story that appeals to as many today as it once did. Yet the message of suffering as the medium of union with Jesus, as the way of drawing closer to God by emulating the mortification undergone by Jesus, remained fundamental to the devotion to the Sacred Heart as it took shape in the life of Marguerite-Marie Alacoque during 1670s. The iconography of the Sacred Heart through the eighteenth century demonstrates this as in Pompeo Batoni’s Sacro Cuore di Gesù (#18; ca. 1740) or José de Páez’s Adoration of the Sacred Heart by Saints Ignatius Loyola and Aloysius Gonzaga (#19; 1773). The Jesuits vigorously promoted the long cause of the Sacred Heart and insisted on the literal appearance of the heart as a human organ. In so doing, they were devoted not only to Alacoque’s visions, but to the older tradition already seen at work in the allegorical image of Contrition and Fear of God. The heart was not simply a metaphor, but the actual presence of God. And what could be clearer than José de Páez’s paean to the colossal presence of the heart or the grasping hand of Batoni’s Jesus? The Jesuits stressed the literal heart in fierce opposition to Catholic reformers and Jansenists (not to mention Protestants), who imagined a natural world in which divine presence was concentrated in the individual human conscience rather than possessed and controlled by church authorities and enforced by sympathetic monarchies. A secular world meant the enlightened separation of church and state, a world in which liberal democracies would operate as sovereign realms and the sacred was at work in ethical behavior and civil society rather than ecclesiastical ritual.

The profusion of images gathered by Peter Névraumont clearly shows that the Jesuits succeeded, at least inasmuch as they were able to promote a cause that took root in popular piety as well as in new religious orders. Yet the visual record testifies that over time that the heart went from the literal organ cupped in the hand of Batoni’s eighteenth-century Jesus to the mid-nineteenth-century badge or decal floating on the chest of the Savior (#82) and finally vanished altogether by the end of the century in the image of Jacques-Joseph Tissot’s Notre-Seigneur Jésus-Christ (#24). What remains constant, however, is the steady gaze of Jesus, fixed beseechingly on the viewer. It is the address of the courtly lover transfigured into the offer of divine love. If the heart flattens into an emblem and even disappears in some cases and the presence shifts from organ to person, the doleful beckoning to respond to the personal example and invitation of Jesus remains.

And yet, in spite of the iconographical changes, the symbol of the Sacred Heart itself persists—as garden ornament, tattoo, prayer card, and Elvis. An emblem of compassion, of ethnic identity, of traditional Catholic piety, of camp or kitsch or folk or fine art, the image lives on in popular piety and commercial mass-culture as a widely circulating logo of virtually anything the bearer wants it to mean. But wherever it appears, the heart bears something of the original juxtaposition of different orders of representation, the transposition of word and image, the abrupt and unresolved amalgamation of thought and body. The dislocation of the heart never loses its arresting oddness and never rests with a single explanation. What does it mean? One looks to Jesus and awaits his quiet account.

David Morgan
Professor of Religion
Department of Religion
Duke University