Sunday, 30 October 2011

Following the Sacred Heart to Paris: (4) L'Art Saint Sulpice and the art of the Sacred Heart

From the sublime to to ridiculous!   Despite the desire to experience the love of the Sacred Heart as manifested in the lives in the lives of St. Madeleine-Sophie and St. Louise and their sisters, I knew there was somewhere else in Paris I had to visit: Place St Sulpice.  In many ways what had taken place in and around the area associated with the Church of St. Sulpice was just as important to the devotion to the Sacred Heart as the traditions and teachings of the church.  As a devotion, it has been very focused on an image.  The area was in its day in the 19th century responsible for the mass production of Catholic art.  It was from this part of Paris that all the plaster statues of the Sacred Heart were to be produced and where from  pictures and prayer cards were exported world-wide.  As Colleen McDannell shows in her book  Material Christianity ( Yale University Press, 1998): 'l'Art Saint-Sulpice became the international style of Catholic church art. From Ireland to Mexico to India or the United States, local art was replaced by goods either imported from France or copied from French standards.'  Teilhard was not alone in feeling that this kitsch art produced by the many businesses which surrounded the  church of St. Sulpice did the Sacred Heart no favours.  Indeed, the predominance of the Sulpicean images was not helpful to what he believed was necessary: an  evolution in the devotion.  And yet, he himself carried around with him an image which he treasured as something which in someway captured his sense of the Sacred Heart. (See here )  On the card he carried and which he gave as a gift to his friend Lucile Swan is the address of Art Catholique, 6 Place Saint Sulpice. So,  off  we went to find it.  And here it is - above right.

There are still a few shops around the Church selling pretty much the same kind of Sacred Heart merchandise that would have been sold over a hundred years ago.  We  then ventured inside the church. It is well worth a visit and it was especially relevant for my Sacred Heart journey.   The only thing I knew about the church was that it was famous for its organs  and organists: Widor played here for over 60 years! As we walked around it was noticeable that the most 'used' of many chapels was that the the Sacred Heart. I wanted to get in an have a really good look, but there was a family who were praying very intensively and I naturally did not want to disturb, so I carried on and discovered the marvellous paintings of Delacroix in the ' Chapel of the Holy Angels'.  I knew the first one: 'Jacob wrestling with the Angel'.  But did not know the ceiling painting of 'St. Michael Defeats the devil.'  Eventually I returned to the Sacred Heart  Chapel, and explored it in some detail.

The chapel was far more important than I imagined.  It turns out that it was the first chapel in Paris ever to be dedicated to the Sacred Heart - in 1748.  It was the initiative of the then  pastor of the church, Jean-Babtiste Languet de Gergy  -  whose brother was an early  biographer of none other than Marguerite Marie herself.

The chapel  has a rather poor window depicting the Sacred Heart, AND the head is missing ! It has some impressive woodwork on the altar - dated 1841 and a  statue  by Emile  Thomas dated  1894.   What was surprising was that the statue of the Sacred Heart  had a golden heart rather than the more usual red on an open chest: and it is noticeable that this kind of statue is quite common in Churches in Paris - even in a Jesuit Church such as Saint Paul and St. Louis in the Marais.  But not the kind of image produced by L'Art Saint Sulpice! The kind of images produced en masse by the businesses around the church mainly opted for the lurid red, blood dripping variety.  The face is also strong and masculine without any trace of the rather feminine look which we associated with l'Art Saint Sulpice style.  What was  also interesting was the fact that it was surrounded by votive hearts made of what looks like brass: which presumably could have been purchased in one of the many shops around the church.

Around the base of the statue were contemporary equivalents: written prayers and thanks.  Thus the Sacred Heart still seems to be attracting the kind of devotion that was manifested in the past.  It just was not so aesthetic!  But I was moved by the number of people who would come to the chapel and light a candle or just sit and pray, and I would leave whenever someone came in to the chapel. Eventually I noticed a large painting on canvas on the left hand on the chapel.  It was black very dirty and it was difficult to make out what the painting was about.  So I took a few pictures.  It was only when I got home to London and  edited the pictures that the image became clear.

The artist of this picture which is described, but not shown in the guide is named as  Berthélemy (Jean-Simon)  and is dated as 1784.  In his day he was a very well known and highly respected artist.  See here.   It is a real shame that you can only see this picture after being edited and adjusted  on the computer.  The picture needs a good clean!

Berthélemy's Sacred Heart

However, although not very satisfactory, my photograph gives a good idea as to what the painting is about.  The guidebook simply says that it 'presents the adoration of the Sacred Heart by the world'.   This suggests to me that the person who wrote the entry had not really looked at picture.  It is,  I think, one of the more interesting Sacred Heart images I have come across.  

Our icon features St. Michael and the Sacred Heart, and to my knowledge the picture by Berthélemy  is the only Sacred Heart which also shows the symbol in relation to St. Michael.  He is shown defeating Satan. This seems to be accomplished by Michael harnessing the power of divine energy radiating from the heart.   Thus the painting is better described as the Adoration of the Sacred Heart by the world and the defeat of Satan through the power of the Sacred Heart! Although dated 1784 - that is 5 years before the revolution - the painting to me  has more of a post-revolutionary feel. Divine retribution for what had happened to the Church during the revolution?  Perhaps it is dated incorrectly?  Satan appears to be holding a statue - perhaps the statue of the Virgin by Bouchardon  that had been lost / stolen?  Pre or post revolutionary the painting still  conveys in no uncertain terms the strong  and growing devotion to the Sacred Heart as the saviour of France and the protector of the church.     One other point is that if we look at the painting by Delacroix in the chapel of the Angels done in the middle of the 19th century we find an echo  of Berthélemy's Sacred Heart in Delacroix's painting of  Saint Michael defeats the devil: especially with the discarded weapons on the left-hand side.

There are many issues suggested by Berthélemy's picture.  Here I will just raise one.  Given the location of this painting in the very centre of the French religious art industry,why was this image not more widely distributed?  I think the answer to that is straight-forward.  The  industry was overwhelmingly committed to selling a more homely or safe image of the Sacred Heart.  This kind of image would not sell.  But if we are to better understand the Sacred Heart, I think this image is an important one to explore. 

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