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

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.