An enduring icon of tattoo symbolism as well as Catholicism, the image of the sacred heart is one that is widely recognized, even to the most casual of tattoo observers. With roots in France – and possibly also prehistoric Mexico – the image of the wounded heart of Jesus is more than just your typical valentine.
It was on December 27th, probably 1673, when a twenty-six year old nun, Marguerite-Marie Alacoque, in a monastery at Paray-le-Monial, France, received a vision. Even at her young age, Marguerite-Marie had already practiced a lifetime of severe self-deprivation and acute physical hardship, since her first communion at the age of nine. Indeed, much of her worship and prayer centered around the sacrament of communion, as did her visions. For about a year-and-a-half, Jesus appeared to her and revealed his actual heart, burning inside his chest, radiant with love, but needful of acknowledgment of that love, a love that had not always been returned.
Instructions for frequent communion and the establishment of a special feast day and devotion of the sacred heart were the messages entrusted to Marguerite-Marie, who dutifully passed them on. She later wrote “He was brilliant with glory. His five wounds shone like five suns. Flames darted from all parts of His sacred humanity, but especially from His adorable breast, which resembled a furnace, and which, opening, displayed to me His loving and amiable Heart, the living source of these flames.”
And yet, Saint Marguerite-Marie, she died at the age of 43 and was eventually canonized in 1920, was not the first proponent of the sacred heart nor the first to receive a vision of it. St. Lutgarde d’Aywieres (France, died 1246), Beatrice de Nazareth (Belgium, died 1268), Gertrude the Great (Germany, died 1302), and Mechtilde of Hackeborn (Germany, died 1298) all received visions of the physical heart of Jesus, seen through the lance wound in his side, blazing in glory and also with grace flowing down from it, like water. But the devotion of the sacred heart and its sanction by the church was not to take hold until the time of Saint Marguerite-Marie in the 1690s. Perhaps it was an idea whose time had finally come. Or perhaps the experience of the church in another part of the globe was having its effect.
From New World to Old
Prior to the arrival of Europeans in Mexico in the 1500s, the Aztec had been practicing their own religion for centuries, a religion at whose center was the human heart. As portrayed in the Codex Magliabechiano, captives were lead to the top of the temple where their heart was quickly removed by a priest and offered to the Sun god Tonatiuh as the “precious eagle cactus fruit,” the supreme debt offering, burned in a special vessel that was carved to represent an eagle. Spanish missionary priests would ultimately record their observations in several such codices and the sacred heart as a human-shaped organ would quickly become a popular symbol in Catholic Mexico. So much so, that even when scenes from sacred history were banned from any type of furniture or tool, you could still get a pastry in the shape of a sacred heart.
It is impossible to say with certainty that the image of an anatomical human heart, previously unknown in the Christian world, came from the New World. However, the timing is interesting, to say the least. Since then, it has been amazing to see how steadfast the various characteristics of this icon have been. As tattoos and votive candles the world over attest, the sacred heart is generally wounded, aflame and radiant, encircled by a crown of thorns, and often with a stylized aorta at the top. Although the sacred heart tattoo can, and does, appear anywhere, its placement on the chest seems particularly apt. In fact, the placement of the sacred heart tattoo over the heart gets to the essence of the devotion itself, per the Catholic Encyclopedia, “a reciprocation of love; its aim is to love Jesus who has so loved us, to return love for love.”