by Pompeo Batoni
The devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus (today’s feast day) has not been entirely salubrious for the Church. It is no doubt good and helpful to focus on the human nature and emotions of Jesus; but which emotions are presented and how those emotions have been presented has created problems. The intensity of Jesus’ emotions was often expressed in anger, his emotion most frequently mentioned in the Gospels. One would never guess this from the images in popular devotion, which try to convey love, but a love that is devoid of the anguish and intensity that is portrayed in the Gospels. The image of the Sacred Heart has been soft, effeminate, and sappy. Here is a section from my forthcoming book:
The Sacred Heart
If women were responding to Jesus erotically, as they were encouraged to do in the tradition of bridal mysticism which we will examine in the next chapter, one would think that Jesus would be seen as very masculine. However, this was not the case. The original brutal image of the suffering heart that Margaret Mary Alacoque saw was largely replaced by depictions based on a 1767 painting by Pompeo Batoni for the Church of the Gesù (the Jesuit church) in Rome. It shows Jesus, pointing to his heart, but more importantly gazing outward at the viewer, engaging his (or much more often, her) eyes. The new image emphasizes “the tenderness and accessibility, even the vulnerability” of Jesus rather than his brutal physical sacrifice. The feminine softness and sympathetic gaze of Jesus established a bond between him and those who sought his aid, that is, “primarily women and children.” This was a major change, as David Morgan points out, from the original image of the Sacred Heart; it substitutes “closeness and delicacy of feeling for the older passion, devoted personal relationship for penitential anguish.” The tone of hymns expressed this:
Sweet Heart of Jesus, we implore
O make us love thee more and more
Sweet Heart of Jesus, make us pure and gentle
And teach us how to do Thy blessed will,
To follow close the print of Thy dear footsteps
And when we fall, sweet heart, O love us still.
Jesus was seen as a gentle, non-threatening, understanding man, everything that ordinary men were not. The devotion to the Sacred Heart was taken up by the Jesuits and used against their enemies, the Jansenists, who were dubious about the devotion to the Sacred Heart on theological grounds. But even the Jesuits were not happy with the effeminate overtones of the devotion. Franz Hattler in 1894 described the image of Jesus in the Sacred Heart cult as “a matchmaker” with a “flirtatiously bowed head, longing eyes, a mouth puckered with kisses,” and “foppishly crimped hair.” Otto Pfülf found the devotion “too sweet,” “like a pious fantasy,” that was “more suitable for the souls of women.” Richard Burton describes the nineteenth-century French Christ as “curiously androgynous, with his wispy beard, doe-like eyes, and delicate, soft-limbed body.” In 1899 in the United States an historian described the image of the Sacred Heart as “a young man in flowing gowns, with soft face, large eyes, small delicate mouth, slightly parted lips, small thin nose, downy beard, long curly hair parted in the middle and falling gracefully to the shoulders, slender hands,” or, as another critic called the image, “a biological Valentine.” George Cutten at the beginning of the twentieth century claimed that “Roman Catholic art depicts him [Christ] as most effeminate, and he is always described as the passive sufferer, with hyper-developed emotions.”
Such sentiments and images did not appeal to men, as Pius XII recognized, when he criticized those who thought the devotion to the Sacred Heart “a type of piety nourished not by the soul and mind but by the senses and consequently more suited to the use of women, since it seems to them something not quite suitable for educated men.” As a badge, the Sacred Heart had political and therefore masculine implications, but as a devotion it was decidedly non- if not anti-masculine.