Félix Villé 's Sacred Heart

Félix Villé  (- who painted the picture of the Sacred Heart in 1895  that may well have influenced Henri Pinta's picture which in turn was so much admired by Teilhard  (SEE HERE ) -  ) or to give him his full name  Robert Félix Bauduin (or Paulin ?) Ladislas  was born in Mézières  (1, rue des  Pêcheurs ) on  November 21, 1819 and  died September 22, 1907 in Paris.  He was a pupil of Leon Cogniet and the School of Fine Arts - beginning  in  1844 ( or '48).  (see HERE)  The Church of Saint Francois-Xavier  in Paris (SEE HERE) where his picture of the Sacred Heart is to be found informs us on its website that:
 'Félix Villé est essentiellement peintre de paysages. Il fut élève à l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts   et ses œuvres  sont visibles aux musées de Nantes, Reims et Annonay'. 

Despite my best efforts, however,  I have only been able to track down his portrait of Napoleon III in Nantes. 

Félix Villé, was - I recently discovered -  a lay member of the Domincan order , that is  a tertiary Dominican  or third order Dominican.  When we understand that he was a lay member of the order of preachers this his picture takes on an entirely new dimension.   In a report on ‘major figures in the Dominican Laity’  we find that  Félix Villé  is mentioned.  (HERE)  An authority on the art of Parisian churches, Cecile Dupre (HERE)  also notes that he was a tertiary Dominican who responsible for art works in several other churches apart from Saint Francois-Xavier : including a large fresco in Notre Dame du Travail as well as Saint Martin des Champs and  Notre Dame Bonne Nouvelle.  (HERE)  After his Sacred Heart painting (1895) his next big Paris commission seems to have been for  Notre Dame du Travail  where (in 1904) he executed a large fresco   (SEE HERE) in the choir stalls surrounding a statute of ‘ Our Lady of Work’ entitled ‘Our Lady of Work comes to the rescue of the afflicted.’

Félix Villé, Angel in ‘Our Lady of Work comes to the rescue of the afflicted.’
What is notable about his fresco in  Notre Dame du Travail is that he uses exactly the same kind of cloud in his picture of the Sacred Heart, so there is little doubt that the two works are by the same man.  We also see the  Basilica of the Sacred Heart in the background. 

Fra Angelico's St Thomas Acquinas
I think therefore what we see in Saint Francis Xavier’s church in Paris is very much a Dominican image of the Sacred Heart which typically uses light or fire rather than a heart symbol or an anatomical representation.  Here is is useful to compare the teriary Dominican’s  work with that of (another Dominican)  Fra Angelico. In Fra Angelico’s work in particular there is a great emphasis on the mystical power of light.   And again in is interesting that one of the greatest of all Dominicans, St Thomas Acquinas, is represented with a glowing sun on his breast – in images by Fra Angelico as by other artists.   But, perhaps the most striking aspect of the painting by  Félix Villé is that it brings to mind the work of   yet another great Dominican who is particularly associated with the history of the Devotion to the Sacred Heart -  St Catherine of Siena.  It was Saint Catherine who was to experience an exchange of  hearts with Christ  and who proclaimed that God is 'nothing but the fire of love'  and that  'La mia natura e' fuoco' - 'My nature is fire'.

This beautiful prayer /poem  (below) is one of her most famous compositions which, as a Dominican, Félix Villé must have known. It is difficult not to read his picture of the Sacred Heart in the context of this prayer, for we see the fire of the love of God (as the Sacred Heart) dissipating the clouds.  And under the cloud the good and the great of Paris imploring the Sacred Heart to come to the aid of the city. 

In your nature, eternal Godhead,
I shall come to know my nature.
And what is my nature, boundless love?
It is fire,
because you are nothing but a fire of love.
And you have given humankind
a share in this nature,
for by the fire of love you created us.
And so with all other people
and every created thing;
you made them out of love.

Félix Villé's Sacred Heart, 1895: L'eglise Saint-Francois-Xavier, Paris VII
O ungrateful people!
What nature has your God given you?

His very own nature!
Are you not ashamed to cut yourself off from such a noble thing
through the guilt of deadly sin?

O eternal Trinity, my sweet love!
You, light, give us light.
You, wisdom, give us wisdom.

You, supreme strength, strengthen us.
Today, eternal God,
let our cloud be dissipated
so that we may perfectly know and follow your Truth in truth,
with a free and simple heart.

God, come to our assistance!
Lord, make haste to help us!


Frère Félix Villé

What we have in this relatively unknown painting by a lay Dominican artist is a beautiful and compelling  statement of God as  the fire of love.  The artist is reminding us that - in the symbol of the Sacred Heart we SHARE in this fire of love.  I think that there can be little doubt but that Félix Villé has drawn on the Dominican tradition - and especially on this great prayer of St. Catherine of Siena.

The line in St. Catherine’s prayer about clouds being dissipated by the fire and light of God’s love  is clearly evident in Ville’s picture.  Christ is shown on a cloud and his fire and light is indeed dissipating the clouds surrounding Paris. St. Catherine is, of course,  known as the ‘Seraphic Virgin’.  And it is noticeable that Félix Villé includes in his picture two seraphs - top left and right of the picture: because God is a fire of love. ( And hence would be accompanied by the Seraphim.)  They are not as clear as they might be, but nonetheless we can make them out.   Given this strong association with the ‘Seraphic Virgin’ and the Dominican order (especially the  lay order ) the presence of two Seraphim is very  significant.  I have not come across too many images of the Sacred Heart in which seraphs appear - although the fresco in Paray also shows seraphs - (see here).  ( I think our icon is also an exception in this regard.)  

Dominican portrayed in St. Dominic's 7th way of prayer
All in all, therefore, Félix Villé's  painting can be read as an image of the Sacred Heart that invites us to see the image through a Dominican perspective.   My own view  is that it is a picture which calls for us to see the Sacred Heart through the lens of St. Catherine's prayer and the Dominican  tradition of heart spirituality.  Thus our seraph in the top left of our our  icon is not simply a doorway into the Franciscan tradition: it is also, through the ‘ Seraphic Virgin’ inviting us to read the image from the perspective of the ‘Dominican’ tradition!  

In the lower right hand corner we see  Dominicans and Franciscans.  This reminds us of the great contribution which the two orders have made to the development of the Sacred Heart as a devotion   - especially in the middle ages.  At the top we have two seraphs  which prompt us to remember in our prayers the Dominican 'Seraphic Virgin' - St Catherine of Siena, and the Franciscan  'Seraphic Doctor', St. Bonaventure.  The presence of these angels, of course can also serve to remind us of the role of 'Doctor Angelicus', St Thomas Acquinas!  

Thus the little Seraph in the icon becomes ever more significant as a kind of doorway into the Sacred Heart. St Catherine now joins St. Margaret Mary !(See HERE)  They serve to remind us of how immensely important the role of women have been in revealing the mystery of the Sacred Heart.   It is so fitting that in the opposite diagonal corner we find St. Mary Magdalene! 

However, one of the clearest statements in the painting of  the artist's invitation for us to read the painting in a Dominican way is the fact that the Dominican in the right hand of the image is adopting one of the famous prayer positions  or ways of St Dominic - number 7 to be precise. 

"WHILE PRAYING he [Dominic]  was often seen to reach towards heaven like an arrow which has been shot from a taut bow straight upwards into the sky. He would stand with hands outstretched above his head and joined together, or at times slightly separated as if about to receive something from heaven. One would believe that he was receiving an increase of grace and in this rapture of spirit was asking God for the gifts of the Holy Spirit for the Order he had founded.
He seemed to seek for himself and his brethren something of that transcendent joy which is found in living the beatitudes, praying that each would consider himself truly blessed in extreme poverty, in bitter mourning, in cruel persecutions, in a great hunger and thirst for justice, in anxious mercy towards all. His entreaty was that his children would find their delight in observing the commandments and in the perfect practice of the evangelical counsels. Enraptured, the holy father then appeared to have entered into the Holy of Holies and the Third Heaven. After prayer of this kind he truly seemed to be a prophet, whether in correcting the faulty, in directing others, or in his preaching.
Our holy father did not remain at prayer of this type very long but gradually regained full possession of his faculties. He looked during that time like a person coming from a great distance or like a stranger in this world, as could easily be discerned from his countenance and manner. The brethren would then hear him praying aloud and saying as the prophet: "Hear, O Lord, the voice of my supplication which I pray to thee, when I lift up my hands to thy holy temple" (Ps. 27:2).
Through his words and holy example he constantly taught the friars to pray in this way, often repeating those phrases from the psalms: "Behold, now bless ye the Lord, all ye servants of the Lord ... in the nights lift up your hands to the holy places, and bless ye the Lord" (Ps. 133:1-3), "I have cried to thee, O Lord, hear me; hearken to my voice when I cry to thee. Let my prayer be directed as incense in they sight; the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice" (Ps. 140:1-2). The drawing shows us this mode of prayer so that we may better understand it."

From  ‘The nine ways of prayer of St. Dominic See  HERE