Monday, June 17, 2024

Origins of Devotion to—and Artistic Depictions of—the Wounds, Blood, and Heart of Christ

Louis Charbonneau-Lassay. The Vulnerary of Christ: The Mysterious Emblems of the Wounds in the Body and Heart of Jesus Christ. Translated by G. John Champoux. Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2021. 586 pp. Paperback $30 / Hardcover $40. Available at Angelico and Amazon.

The author of
The Vulnerary of Christ, Louis Charbonneau-Lassay (1871–1946; hereafter C-L), was among the most versatile and erudite researchers of Christian archaeology and symbolism the world has ever seen. He traveled throughout Europe looking at churches, monasteries, public buildings, monuments, manuscripts, paintings, vestments, stained glass, furniture, host-molds, escutcheons, banners, trademarks, objets d’art, anything that bore or could possibly bear Christian symbols, and carefully drew copies of them into his notebooks. He left behind in his files tens of thousands of drawings and notes which he planned to include in a series of books. The one major work published in his lifetime, The Bestiary of Christ, appeared in English in an abbreviated version.

To add intrigue, the finished manuscript of his masterpiece,
The Vulnerary of Christ, was stolen by a visitor who arrived at C-L’s home shortly before his death. Fortunately for us, a detailed outline of the book, the notes used to compose it, and the drawings all remained in his home. Thanks to a painstaking reconstruction by Gauthier Pierozak, it was possible to publish the work in French in 2018. In 2021, Angelico Press brought out a deluxe, copiously-illustrated English translation, of which I had the privilege of reading the page proofs, and which I cannot recommend too highly.

How best to describe this encyclopedic work—at once archaeological, artistic, historical, literary, liturgical, and devotional? The author’s fundamental thesis is that devotion to the wounded Heart of Christ, far from being a pure invention of eighteenth-century French piety or even of high medieval piety, as is so often claimed, has its roots deep in the early Church, in the earliest artistic representations and symbols of Christ.

We find ubiquitous use of the “
signaculum Domini” that consists of five marks (be they points, crosses, crescents, hearts, flowers, lozenges, asterisks, annulets), in which the mark that represents the wound in the side becomes progressively more important, until the Heart that was pierced and exposed by the lance becomes the object of loving adoration, the visible symbol of the immensity of divine Love: “We will see later that this particular cult of the wound in the side has quite naturally led to the exteriorizing of the cult of the heart of Jesus under its anatomical form, which it contained in potency and towards which it inevitably oriented thought; but here, as in all such cases, the symbol has necessarily preceded the thinking responsible for interpreting it” (62).

There is a gentle anti-Protestant and anti-Orthodox polemic underlying the argument: on the one hand, the Protestants do not understand the implications of the Incarnation for Christian art and liturgy; on the other hand, the Orthodox, who possess a rich iconographical tradition, too quickly write off Catholic devotions and artistic representations as decadent corruptions when, in fact, they find support in Scripture, the Church Fathers, and early artistic evidence.

C-L successfully shows that the devotion to the Passion, the Five Wounds, the Sacred Heart, the Precious Blood, and the Holy Face are all inseparable from one another, mutually implicatory and reinforcing. “At the place of the wounded heart of Jesus, as with everything that is the object of adoration, today’s Christian rediscovers, in bending the knee to the ground, the incontestable trace of the knees of all his ancestors” (84).

Protestantism, with its surface rigorism and theological sophisms, Jansenism, with its narrow and rigid conception of the idea of Christ, cast upon France a cold mist that obscured and weakened, though without extinguishing it, the broad piety for the heart of Jesus. After them, it would take the great breath of Paray-le-Monial to stir up the embers and kindle the flame. (281)
The book is organized into eight parts:
  1. Representations of the Five Wounds of Christ in Earliest Christian Art
  2. Depictions of the Wound in the Side of Christ
  3. Representations of the Redemptive Shedding of Blood
  4. Plants Emblematic of Christ’s Five Wounds
  5. Stones Emblematic of the Wounded Christ
  6. The Iconography of the Wounded Heart of Jesus
  7. The Iconography of the Heart of Jesus in the Counter-Revolutionary Armies of the Vendée
  8. Diverse Representations Relating to or Foreign to the Cult of the Heart of Jesus

Although much of the time C-L is patiently reviewing, comparing, and drawing conclusions from the hundreds of artistic objects he has sketched—there are 359 engravings and 32 plates in the book, all of them commented on—the prose rises every few pages to the heights of poetry:

Nailed to the wood of his cross, the tortured divine Victim had sensed death achieving its conquest within him, and, with one last effort towards the world, he had cried out that his redeeming work was consummated.
       Next, in the unexpected night that had suddenly fallen over it, as the earth trembled with emotion and rocks split apart, Jesus bowed his head and rendered up his soul to his Father.
       Then, as the hour of the sabbath approached, his own had to quickly take him down from the cross to be able to bury him. But, before allowing them to do as they wished, soldiers approached to break the legs of Jesus and of the two others crucified with him, so as to finish them off. But, seeing that the Savior was already dead, they did not break his legs. “But one of the soldiers with a spear opened his side: and immediately there came out blood and water.”
       The wounds to his hands and feet, as well as the bruises over his entire body, had stopped the life of the Victim and satisfied justice. The wound from the spear-thrust, a wound of supererogation, brought forth from the very body of this corpse the blossoming of a divinely fecund life, and satisfied infinite munificence and love.
       And since that time, and for evermore, the Christian world has lived and will live from this life springing forth, through his side, from the opened heart of Christ Jesus! (67)

The sheer exuberance of the imagery C-L compiles—where we see, for instance, the Heart of Jesus depicted as a grape in the winepress (126–28), or as the cup of a holy water stoup (106); a chalice so depicted that its opening suggests the wound in His side (80); the Pantocrator reigning upon a heart-shaped throne (255, 277–78); the divine Blood depicted as a jewel in a cup (195); Adam and Eve in the garden, holding aloft a Heart surmounted by a Cross as a foreshadowing of their redemption (270); a trademark in which chant notation provides the “so-la” for the phrase “fides sufficit” (274); a Carthusian astronomical marble that depicts the constellations revolving around a wounded Heart glowing like the sun (354); the depiction of a flaming Heart on which has been drawn the map of the world (364); a brotherhood’s emblem consisting of thirty-three tiny hearts enclosed in a Heart surrounded by a braid of thorns (399); a carved wooden lyre in the shape of a Heart (417)—is enough to fill the reader’s mind with an ever-growing wonder at the inexhaustible profundity and playfulness of the Christian imagination suffused with faith in the Redeemer. Among the many categories of readers who would find this book enthralling must not be forgotten artists, craftsmen, and designers, who will discover in it a delightful catalogue of inspiration.

The level of detail in the book is nothing short of mind-boggling. Just to take an example at random, Part 4, concerning Plants Emblematic of Christ’s Five Wounds, tells us in chapter 11 about “The Trees of the Passion” (olive tree, trees shaped like crosses, gum trees that produce valuable sap by being wounded), in chapter 12 about “Plants of the Divine Torture” (St. John’s Wort, called “Flagellation grass”; prickly marine rushes; hyssop and sponge), in chapter 13 about “The Garden of the Wounded Christ” (the strawberry, the poppy, the lychnis, the red rose, the amaranth, the adonide, the passionflower, and the paulownia flower).

C-L shares the conviction of the medieval allegorists that everything in nature was created not only through the Word but also in some way to reflect the Word’s Incarnation, the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. Certainly this principle is required for any intelligent “reading” of the works of Christian artists from all periods prior to modernity. Indeed, C-L complains at one point that artists of the nineteenth century had lost the ability to understand iconography and therefore produced atrocious art:

The admirable and zealous movement begun at Paray, a wonderful stimulus to piety towards the heart of Jesus, did not induce, with its iconography, any return to [artistic] order. At least the religious imagery posterior to this movement did not increase confusion further. Finally, the deplorable fantasies dreamt up in the nineteenth century for the populace succeeded in crossing the bounds of the ridiculous with their absurd compositions, where we find all mixed together: grinning angels, ecstatic urchins, any flower whatsoever, hearts without distinctive features, and flights of doves that draw on high other hearts with implausible garlands or cords; the whole arsenal of a winded and fretful art (?) that had its peak around 1880, and which is now, quite thankfully, over and done with. (295)
The Vulnerary of Christ contains some “bonus” chapters that one might not have expected from its title. The legend of the Holy Grail is examined in chapter 15, and competing stories about the vessels of Jerusalem, Genoa, and Valencia, each claiming to be the cup of the Last Supper, are compared. Chapter 16 presents evidence that the ancient Egyptians venerated the heart of the supreme God. The cult of the Holy Name of Jesus and the depiction of the monogram is explored in chapter 18. The use of Christic symbols in the coats of arms of royalty is the subject of chapter 20. Chapters 21 and 22 look at astronomical sculptures and heart-shaped sundials, primarily from Carthusian monasteries.

Chapters 30 and 31 enter into the question of secular adaptations or thefts, misuses, even mockeries, of the Heart. For example, the Freemasons in France produced blasphemous versions of the Sacred Heart that they distributed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as “counter-propaganda” against the Faith. Large numbers of five-starred medals depicting the Sacred Heart bound with a chain and surrounded by the words “Psychology and Science” were sent to French soldiers on the front in World War II to combat the “threat” of popular devotional medallions.

Perhaps the most gripping portion of the book, at least for us at this time, is Part Seven, on the use of the Heart of Jesus as the identifying emblem of the counterrevolutionary armies of the Vendée (pp. 431–87). So far from fading with the passage of time, this characteristically Vendéan image has received new life in the postconciliar period as a potent symbol of the Catholic traditionalism that resists both the ideology of the French Revolution and its infiltration into the Church. The attentive reader will recognize how the ancient double heart symbol on p. 467 has gained a second career as the emblem of an important Society.

This book is a one-of-a-kind exposé of the subtle interplay between theology and symbolism, spirituality and art, faith and culture. It bears witness to the irreducibly visual, representational nature of Christianity, which (to paraphrase Maximus the Confessor) everywhere seeks its embodiment in the flesh, in matter, which it thereby seeks to illuminate and elevate as a herald of the Kingdom of God, which is both within and above. It is fitting to let Charbonneau-Lassay have the final word:
In truth, the cult of the wounded heart of Jesus Christ does not have its origin in the deep meditations and exaltations of theologians or teachers of the past, or in the conceptions of our old artists; it does not have its source in the revelations, the visions, the inspirations of the saintly men and women of any time or in the zeal of a particular religious order; it comes wholly and directly from the sole worship of the divine blood and the five chief wounds from which it poured, according to the word of the Nicene Creed, “for us men, and for our salvation.” By this well-marked route, the cult of the wounded heart goes back to the very birth of the Church.
       Of course, theologians, artists, doctors, saintly men and women, and religious orders, have added to, each has quickened, according to the providential views and according to their time, the cult of the five wounds, the worship of the open heart of Christ Jesus. But no, none of them has invented anything new. And when I look at Calvary, in spite of the darkness that enshrouds it with mourning, I see, already, worshipers of the pierced heart: Mary, “the dolorous Mother who stands upright,” John, Magdalene, and, surely from that moment, the legionnaire whose spear tip has just initialed with a flourish the “Consummatum est” of the Crucified One, who withdraws it from the open chest while his captain proclaims that this One, truly, is indeed the Son of God, whose heart, even now, pours forth blood and water through his wound! (245)

The Vulnerary of Christ is available in paperback and in hardcover.

Visit Dr. Kwasniewski’s Substack “Tradition & Sanity”; personal site; composer site; publishing house Os Justi Press and YouTube, SoundCloud, and Spotify pages.

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