Sunday, 6 March 2011

The evolution of the Sacred Heart (2) The road from Rome to Paris.

You only have to look at the images which still being reproduced today to realize how important the Batoni image was for the evolution of the image of the Sacred Heart. For Teilhard one the most important aspects of evolution was tâtonnement: the process of trial and error and ‘groping’ that characterizes evolutionary processes. Clearly, the evolution of the devotion from the middle ages onwards culminated in the symbols and drawings of the heart of Jesus which came out of the experiences of St Margaret Mary. It then ‘gropes’ its way towards the image painted by Botoni. This constitutes the main evolutionary direction of subsequent images. The main change is in the representation of the Heart. In the Botoni picture it is really ‘in your face’: it is offered to you and the picture invites or compels you to contemplate and to respond to a wounded and suffering heart. (We might call this SHJ type 1.) SHJ1 is still in use in contemporary pictures. Indeed, I note that in a booklet produced by the Catholic Truth Society dated 1999 on the devotion to Sacred Heart the Batoni painting is on the front. I have to confess that it is not to my taste now, and was apparently not the taste of many 19th century devotees, as images increasingly showed the heart as part of the body - the chest - of Jesus, rather than apart in his hand. ( SHJ, Type 2) It is this image that, for obvious reasons best suited statues. I cannot recall ever seeing a statue of the Sacred Heart holding the heart. We can leave to one side in this blog the stage what issue of kind of devotion these images intended to promote, but it is apparent that the major differences within the SHJ2 group is what they do with the arms and hands. There is considerable variation – as there is in the SHJ1 group. No doubt there is a research paper in this for someone classifying the different groups and sub-groups. However, the main point is that there is clearly what in economics we would term a path dependency effect: the Botoni prototype has manifestly determined the evolutionary trajectory of the image. Although the different types of SHJs are different they all show a common ancestor: they share the same artistic DNA. Whether holding a heart or pointing to it, the Botoni inspired images all share a demeanor, a certain look. It is look which we associate with the majority of images of the Sacred Heart which owe their origins to the Botoni painting.

I think that Teilhard – the geologist –understood that by his time the devotion was rather stuck in an evolutionary rut. (We will examine this in a later blog.) He passionately believed that we had to look at the Sacred Heart in a different way. It had to be a way which could facilitate the evolution of the devotion which was so very dear to him. It had to adapt. He saw the Sacred Heart as having the power to re-energize the Church towards a new kind of Christianity. It would be a Christianity in which the devotion to the Sacred Heart would have a vitally important part to play. In all of this he was not a revolutionary, but an evolutionary. However, given prominence of the Botoni image within the Jesuit devotion it would have not been advisable to make any overt criticisms of the picture which adorned the Jesuit mother house in Rome and which was displayed all over the Catholic world. (He was in enough trouble as it was!) When we read what he has to say about the Sacred Heart, however, there can be little doubt about his desire to see the image – as the devotion – evolve beyond the baroque sentimentalism of the painting in Jesuit HQ in Rome.

In 1922, however, we can see a dramatic illustration of the adaptive capability of the image to evolve in a way which was not so path dependent. I cannot find any reference in Teilhard to this particular example of iconic tâtonnement, but I find it difficult to believe that he was not aware of it. The great evolutionary step forward was to be found in an unlikely place: the 18th arrondissement of Paris. The very area of the city where the Jesuit order was originally founded in 1534. The one small step towards a different iconic branch was taken in the form of a giant leap in Montmartre.

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