Why is the Sacred Heart so Awful?

If you know the Catholic devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, you’ll know that it has some of the most tasteful, fresh and powerful images. The sort of images that inspire the soul, transcend cultural contexts, and are not in least bit kitschy.


Actually, if you know the Sacred Heart, you know that some of the iconography is awful. Seriously awful. There are genuinely some shockers out there. Shall we take a quick tour?

I mean, there’s Too Much Rogue Jesus.


And his cousin, Went Overboard With The Eyeliner Jesus. (Ocassionally known as Forked Beard Jesus.)


Then there’s Sucking On A Lemon Jesus.


A more modern take with Come At Me Bro Jesus.


And my personal favourite, Superman Jesus. (With complimentary spiral beard.)


Of course, making fun of some of the Sacred Heart imagery is way too easy. It’s not entirely fair, either. These are pictures beloved by generations, and they spoke to a different time. In many ways, a much more innocent time, a gentler time, a time when saccharine moralising was the coolest thing around…

(Ok, but we can hardly point fingers either, because have you seen the sort of “inspirational” calendars, bookmarks and figurines sold in your average Christian store? Yeah… Not much to be proud of there.)

These are particularly bad ones, but even the better ones aren’t that great. I think the problem is that, quite unintentionally, they diminish the sufferings of Our Lord.

1. Pretty Jesus is not cool. 

Have you have stuck a spear in a dead man’s side? No? Me neither, but I’ve seen enough Game of Thrones to know that it is not a pretty sight. In fact, nothing about the Crucifixion of Our Lord was pretty. It was ugly, and bloody, and cruel. When Jesus looks too pretty, His sufferings lose their impact because we all know that no one with such neatly parted, glossy hair could be in that much distress.

Isaiah tells us that the Suffering Messiah “had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” (Isa 53:3) The Sacred Heart should reveal to us the horror of the Crucifixion, and of all that Christ endured for love of us. Pretty Jesus doesn’t do that.

2. Passive Jesus is not cool.

In all of these pictures, Christ seems so passive. And by passive, I mean it in the perjorative sense of lifeless and idle. But Christ is anything but. There is definitely a stillness to the Sacred Heart, which has “never ceased, and never will cease, to beat with calm and imperturable pulsations.” (Haurietis Aquas, 61But it is a divine stillness, that sums up all that has been, and is, and will ever be, in one infinite moment. 

To be fair, that’s very hard to depict. And so we have images where this stillness becomes passivity, which so easily slips into insipidity. The Sacred Heart should show us how Christ actively laid down His life, and all the love, and passion, and human struggle that that took. Passive Jesus doesn’t do that.

3. Pastiche Jesus is not cool.

Pastiche can be fun, but not when you take it so literally. These Sacred Heart images do. They literally just paste a heart on Jesus’ chest and call it a day. This just weirds me out. On the one hand, the pictures are very naturalistic. On the other, there’s a symbol of a heart floating in the middle of His Body.

And somehow, it lessens the power of the image. Please, just pick one. Either go naturalistic or iconographic because when you try to do both, you end up with neither. Instead, you end up with a “realistic” picture of Jesus which doesn’t seem human, or a “symbolic” icon of Christ which seems too naturalistic to do the job properly. The Sacred Heart should pull us into the Passion of Christ so that we lose sight of the physical art. Pastiche Jesus doesn’t do that.


Personally, I like my Sacred Heart as a heart. That way, it emphasises that it is a symbol, it forcefully reminds us of the Passion – not the passivity – of the Lord, and although it is often beautiful, it is never lipstick-and-butterflies-pretty. There’s plenty of blood and fire, exactly as there should be. (Apparently, Game of Thrones really has got to me. I keep wanting to shout Blood and Fire! I will take it with Blood and Fire!)

The Sacred Heart isn’t about some pretty, passive Jesus with doleful eyes, immaculate hair, and a heart stuck on His front. It is the symbol of the love of our Redeemer, a love with “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” can overcome. Because Divine Love, taking flesh and a human heart, has overcome the world.

Do you know any good pictures of the Sacred Heart? Please link below! I’d like to make a collection of Pictures Of The Sacred Heart That Don’t Make Me Cringe.



12 responses to “Why is the Sacred Heart so Awful?

  1. Yes! I agree 110%!!! I mean, we are talking about a devotion which has been called the perfect summary of the Christian religion in a papal encyclical, can we PLEASE get some art for it that isn’t totally cringe-worthy?!

    • Apparently not. 😦 If you ever see any that aren’t, let me know? I’m on a life-long quest to find a picture of the Sacred Heart I actually like. Actually, it is says something to the power of this devotion that it is so powerful in spite of such cringyness. Maybe we can appeal Isa 53 to these images? 😉

  2. Christian art should combine the impact and directness of symbolism and the beauty of naturalism. William-Adolphe Bouguereau does that best.

    The flagellation: http://littlecatholicbubble.blogspot.com.au/2012_02_01_archive.html

    One of many scenes he painted from the life of our lady in a French cathedral: http://idlespeculations-terryprest.blogspot.com.au/2008/11/chapel-of-virgin-cathdrale-de-saint.html

    The pieta: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_Pieta_(1876).jpg

    Notice mhyrr and crown of thorns in corner, also Mary’s desolate gaze

  3. Hi Laura,
    Speaking as a cradle Catholic I grew up with those images; as a young child I loved them because children don’t know about ‘kitsch’. Later I came to see their tastelessness. Yet they are beloved of many simple Catholics (especially the Irish – my forbears!) so I don’t think we should just mock them. If they help an old lady in her devotions, that’s OK by me.
    The only image of Christ that actually ‘speaks’ to me is the Turin Shroud. You must know it. Some people deride it as a fake; I believe it to be the true face of Christ at the point of His Resurrection. It shows His nobility, His beauty, His Kingship, His authority – and every agonising detail of His Passion is stamped on His face and features. It is – an understatement here – not a saccharine image. There is much literature on the Holy Shroud as well as an excellent book by a French doctor, Pierre Barbet: The Corporal Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.
    God bless – Francis

  4. I definitely think that one of the saddest things about Catholic iconography in general is that it can be very outdated in its artistic style. While this can work beautifully with more traditional images such as Our Lady of Czestochowa etc., the Sacred Heart images you’ve talked about here are definitely problematic.

    For me, one of the worst things about this is that it sends out TOTALLY the wrong image to non-Catholics, who see our Christ being depicted as pastiche-y (yeahh I just invented that word…let’s roll with it) and removed from any sort of passion…and therefore think that the Catholic version of Christ belongs in some dusty museum somewhere! Wrong!

    I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on your blog for more non-cringeworthy images of the Sacred Heart – thanks for this post 🙂

  5. I think it’s also worth saying that earthly art is never going to capture Christ in all His glory…so I guess inadequate religious art is something we’re all going to have to put up with till we get to Heaven 😛

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