Saturday, 22 January 2011

Theological thoughts

The Sacred Heart is a powerful image, with leanings towards sentimentality and violence, neither of which fit within the world of eastern iconography. Christian iconography transcends the violence and gore of, say, the Crucifixion, with the sublime pathos of the Suffering Servant who pour out His life for the salvation of all in an act of pure love. Likewise, iconography is ascetical art, where sentimentality is a 'weak' emotionalism that obscures the transfiguring of our broken and frail humanity into the nobility of the redeemed.

Attempts to create icons of the Sacred Heart which I have seen are unconvincing because, I guess, that these two elements which pervade the classical western devotional imagery haven't been theologically comprehended. If this image is to work iconographically, that is as a piece of liturgical rather than devotional art, then we have to work through some of this.

Iconography is ascetical art, that is it shows reality as transfigured flesh through a process of cutting away the superfluous and emphasising the true nature of a person or event. Iconography is an attempt to portray the reality of a thing 'in itself', not a pseudo-photographic attempt to elevate one moment or view as definitive for the identity of a person or event. Perspective, for example, in iconography stretches things so that you see buildings from various angles at one, giving some sense that space is not the same as existence. Objects are not placed in an illusion of space which the viewer can observe as a voyeur, but arranged to confront the beholder. The imagery as it were escapes the boundaries of the frame and places itself full square before the person who sees it.

Western devotional art works by directly stimulating the emotions of the viewer, moving them to tears and to sighs. The great works of the baroque period are full of swooning virgins, like The Ecstacy of St. Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (, and are full, sensuous figures. These are very human figures expanded, as it were, in their physicality so as to overwhelm our senses and so to move our whole being and, in the end, to evoke a very physical response which is intensely personal or individual.

Eastern liturgical art works by touching the soul through visual understatement, as for example the icon of the Holy Prophet Elias from St Catherine's monastery on Mt Sinai (, bypassing the physical senses and appealing to the deepest part of our humanity: our soul or heart. This figure is sublime, the carefully placed lines and the glowing colours creating a sense of the inner person breaking out. The heart is not the seat of our emotions, feelings, but of our' knowing'. As work for liturgy, that is the public, common, communal prayer of the Body of Christ, it avoids stimulating an excess of personal emotion and rather draws the individual into the deeper 'knowing' of God in the Church which bursts forth in the hymn of praise offered up by the whole priestly people of God united around the altar.

The image of the Sacred Heart is a deep spiritual truth, one which speaks of the love of God and especially the Passion as the culmination of the loving self-gift of Christ as the Oblation that brings the redemption of all humankind. We need to unpack this and then re-work it in terms of liturgical art. The difficulty is that the concept is very much a Western one, and we need to first get to the heart of the theology and the roots within the Patristic and Biblical inheritance. The we can begin to recognise the shape, form and colour which would most express that theological base.

1 comment:

  1. Just read this. I find it really helpful and captures much of what was in my head when I began to think of an icon of the Sacred Heart. I will try and blog my own thoughts after I have fully digested your words.