A new way of seeing


11 Jan 2023

Symbols point to important truths, but they are also adaptable to the times and mores of society.

Can art lead us to God? Certainly, Russian author Leo Tolstoy said in his book What is Art? that viewers of good art could be ‘infected’ by its message and ultimately be led to God because of this.

What about artists who have painted images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus? The theology of the Sacred Heart has suffered sometimes from its artistic representation because traditional images of the Sacred Heart have often been visceral with red, gory, pumping hearts or over sentimental portrayals of Jesus pointing to his heart such as seen in the prayer card stands of Catholic piety shops.

As a child who saw these images on the walls of Catholic homes, I was often frightened of them, and they certainly were never explained properly.

Historically the image of the Sacred Heart was derived from a vision Sr Mary Margaret Alacoque (1647-1690) had of Jesus with his heart exposed in Paray le Monial in France. The ensuing devotion to the Sacred Heart in the following centuries came to be called ‘The Apostleship of Prayer’.

Today it has been reinvigorated by Pope Francis and has been renamed ‘The Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network’. Basically, there are four symbols within the Sacred Heart image: a cross placed on top of the heart, a heart inflamed, a heart enclosed in thorns and a heart pierced and exposed.

Jesus is often depicted pointing to his pierced heart. At other times his hand is held up in a gesture of blessing or he is seen simply with both hands held open. In contemplating these images we are called to reflect on the fire of God’s love for us as we see Jesus’ heart broken and pierced, his blood poured out for us. It embodies the full meaning of the Eucharist.

But what about more contemporary images of the Sacred Heart that speak to our culture and time? Do they say a similar thing in a different way? Emmanuel Garibay has been described as ‘an artist for our time, when art, politics, religion, and power collide’. [See, Rod Pattendon, ‘Recognizing the Stranger: The Art of Emmanuel Garibay,’ Image Journal, Issue 68.]

Garibay’s Christlike figure in his Untitled Painting (2004) seems to draw on traditional images of the Sacred Heart. First, the T-shirt he wears is torn in the shape of a heart – a modern take on Jesus’ heart exposed for all. The traditional crown of thorns has become a crown of barbed wire. The Jesus-like figure holds out a cup instead of pointing to his heart, almost begging for money. Yet the cup could also symbolise a chalice. His left hand has the stigmata and there is a suggestion of a pierced left side under the T-shirt recalling John 19:34: ‘one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear’. The man’s gaze recalls the gaze of traditional Byzantine icons of Jesus as does the right hand held up in the gesture of blessing. Yet this contemporary gaze is more human, more challenging.

We are drawn into the intensity and suffering of this man but he radiates an inner stillness and surrendering. The traditional Byzantine halo has been replaced by the suggestion of one in the light blue background. Who does this man remind you of?

Gerald O’Hanlon SJ argues that we need symbols because they touch us ‘at the centre of our beings and enlighten and transform our daily lives’ but we also need ‘to adapt and redirect old ones to suit new times in a way that conveys the substance of the original symbol’.

This is what I think Garibay’s work does. Certainly, as a mother, I was ‘pierced’ by his image – a bit like Mary whom Simeon warns will be pierced by the suffering of her son, Jesus (Luke 2:35).

When I first saw this work, one of my sons was living in community with people such as the marginalised person Garibay has painted. He was living a love for others that was hard. This painting helped me understand the Christ-like largeness of heart he had, even though it was hard to watch him live it. He was gifting himself to others but in return was gifted by them: learning how to forgive, how to be non-judgmental, how to have a heart exposed for others.

It could be said this gifting reaches its ‘high point . . . in Eucharistic celebration’ (John J Greehy, Theology Forum: Devotion to the Sacred Heart: A biblical approach) because the Eucharist is a memorial of the gift Jesus gave us by dying on the cross. Leading such a Eucharistic life is not easy, as I saw with my son, but this painting led me to reflect that perhaps he was meeting Jesus every day in the displaced people he shared a home with.

Garibay’s figure appears to be displaced but what we see is a man capable of love and mercy (his eyes tell us this) despite his suffering (his ripped shirt etc).

The gesture of blessing to the viewer speaks of forgiving others no matter what, as Jesus did on the cross. It speaks to us of hope and the capacity for resurrection in this man’s daily life and our lives too. The image is therefore sacramental.

Thus, artists can lead us to a new and fresh understanding of the real presence of God in our lives if we view art in prayer. Perhaps we just need to be more like Mary and take time to ‘ponder’ all these things in our hearts.

Art retreats

Anne Gray with her husband John Gray are the Australian Coordinators of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network. Anne leads art retreats at the Art Gallery of NSW in ‘The Way of the Heart’ and plans to do so again in 2023. If interested, please contact her on annedecagray@gmail.com

This article first appeared in the Summer 2022-23 edition of Madonna magazine.

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