In terms of religious tattoos, Christianity has a plethora of symbols that are used to represent the faith in a tattoo. Because the religion is so old, the symbols of the religion are old as well and therefore, have a great deal of meaning and history behind them. That is part of what we will be talking about today. One specific symbol is the sacred heart and this symbol is one of the most tattooed images in the Christian faith.
In this post we are going to talk about the history of the sacred heart so we can gather an understanding about why this image is one of the most tattooed Christian symbols in the world. We will also discuss some of the reasons that someone might get this tattoo outside of being a Christian. By the time you finish this post you should have a pretty good idea of what the sacred heart is and what the sacred heart tattoo symbolizes for those that choose to have the image enshrined on their bodies.
About the Sacred Heart
The Sacred Heart is a cherished Christian image that portrays the incredible love that Jesus Christ holds for all of humanity. The red heart is flaming, encased in crown of thorns, pierced with a knife or sword and embedded with a crucifix centered at the top. The crown of thorns and piercing blade are symbols of the wounds that Christ was afflicted with during His suffering on the cross and reminds Christians of His great sacrifice. Placed here, the cross is a small but still prominent detail that highlights the great significance of Jesus’s crucifixion. It is often pictured in front of Christ’s chest, emphasizing the significance of the heart and Christ’s unconditional love for humanity. In some paintings and descriptions, the sacred heart is held in His hand as a representation of His place as a Holy figure with His heart full of love and kindness. The immense suffering of Christ is represented in this image as it conveys the story of the pain and suffering of the crucifixion, a key aspect of Christianity, and more specifically, Catholicism.
The Sacred Heart is a relic of medieval Christianity which placed great significance on the Holy Wounds of Christ. The focus on his extreme suffering works to chastise believers and bid them to do good works in return for the torment he overcame for humanity. The devotion to the Sacred Heart seeks to remind Christians of Jesus’s eternal connection to his love and passion for human kind. To remember his suffering and ability to forgive is to remember the heart of his teachings.
Many tattoo designs feature beams of light radiating from the heart to indicate its glory. When Jesus is included in the design, light often streams from Him as well. The light also introduces imagery that is linked to Heaven and the afterlife. Billowing clouds are often depicted as well to further the concept of Heaven, the reward for a life of good deeds. The addition of Heaven imagery can indicate a strong Christian faith and the belief in love and kindness.
Pieces that include Jesus Christ are often done in greyscale to create a somber and regal tone. In some designs, the Sacred Heart is colored, usually red and gold, so that it becomes the main focus of the tattoo. The image of the Sacred Heart is a representation of Christ’s suffering but also his life and good works. The symbol of the heart is the image of the life force. The Sacred Heart is the root of Christ’s miracles and serves as a representation of that. This symbol immediately conveys an intimate and personal connection to Christ, his teachings, and miracles, especially when Jesus is introduced into the design.
Contrarily, the Sacred Heart can be pictured without any images of Jesus Christ in order to remove the association of the Heart with God. The Heart and the suffering that it represents is applied to the individual who has experienced humbling tragedy in their past. While this can be blasphemous to devoted worshippers, others may find it an appropriate metaphor for their own lives.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart has been historically maintained by female saints throughout the centuries who claim to have been visited by Christ himself. Many saints also have visions of the Virgin Mary who is also connected to the Sacred Heart through the Immaculate Heart, a similar image of a burning heart that is accompanied by Mary. Tattoo designs may feature Mary the Virgin Mother in place of Jesus Christ.
The Sacred Heart is not distinctly a Roman Catholic image but it is most commonly used by that branch of Catholicism. It’s tie to the Holy Wounds of Christ immediately recalls his suffering and serves as a representation of Christian devotion. In larger tattoo designs, Jesus is depicted along with the Sacred Heart so that the intention of the piece is clear and also to pay tribute to Him. Christ is usually holding the heart or pointing to it so that the emphasis is placed on the heart rather than solely on Christ Himself. The Sacred Heart is also a symbol of forgiveness and renewal and a reminder the life he sacrificed for human kind. Holding the Heart outside of His physical body symbolizes His immortality as well as His undying love for all people, not just His followers.
The Sacred Heart can also be used as a tribute or memorial tattoo for a loved one who has passed on or is greatly respected and admired. Names and dates of birth or death are generally included in these designs along with passages of scripture. This is an appropriate devotion to someone who led a life that emulated that of Christ and is often used for parents and grandparents or other beloved individuals.
History of the Sacred Heart
The sacred humanity of Christ is what has led to the devotion to the Sacred Heart. However, there is no proof that there was any worship to the Sacred Heart during the first ten centuries of Christianity.
Christianity had a large jump in devotion during the activity of Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Bernard of Cairvaux in the 12th and 13th centuries. It also helped that the Crusaders returned from the Holy Land to raise the following of the Passion of Christ.
The devotion to the Sacred Heart rose from the dedication to the Holy Wounds. This refers to the Sacred Wound to the ribs of Jesus Christ while he was being crucified. In the 11th and 12th centuries, early indications of devotion to the Sacred Heart was noticed during the time of Cistercian or Benedictine monasteries. However, there is no consensus on the devotees to the Sacred Heart or the first texts speaking of it.
It was believed that the Norbertine Blessed Herman Joseph first wrote a hymn about the Sacred Heart image. Saint Bernard was known to have said that the injury on the ribs of Christ was a symbol of the charity of Christ’s heart and his goodness.
From the 13th to the 16th centuries, the devotion to the Sacred Heart was circulated but it wasn’t overdone. You could find this image in places where people were practicing different congregations including the Carthusians, Dominicans and Franciscans. For the Franciscans, the dedication to the Sacred Heart was spread by Saint Bonaventure.
This is just a small bit of history behind the image of the Sacred Heart. This image has long been associated with the love and charity of Christ so it only makes sense that those that believe in Christ and that he died on the cross for people would have this tattoo.
Another version of this history claims this iconography began at the end of the 17th century and more specifically between the years 1673 and 1675, when nun Margaret Maria Alacoque had a series of mystical visions in the convent of Paray-le-Monial.
In her memories, Nun Alacocque explained her second vision when: “the Sacred Heart appeared on a throne of flames, brighter than the sun and transparent as crystal, surrounded by a crown of thorns representing the injuries caused by our sins and with a cross on top, because from when it was formed, it was already filled with bitterness…”
The visions had by Nun Alacocque were enough to dub her an apostle of this movement which was there to bring people in to worship the Sacred Heart which a source of all the favors God did for us and feelings that God gave us. Soon after, the cult of the Sacred Heart had become one of the most prevalent in Christian Europe.
The thing that had the Catholic clergy worried was the unceasing artistic symbol of the Sacred Heart in itself and not having it combined with the Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ. This was especially the case among the lower classes and their worship was so strong that giant churches were built in dedication to the Sacred Heart and many more places of worship added these words to their name.