Anne-Marie Welsh

MCKEAN — The evening was billed as “a meditation on the scriptural roots of the Sacred Heart devotion and an introduction to the visual development of the devotion in Christian art.”

Ann Schmalsteig Barrett discusses Jozeph Meoffer's Heart of Jesus. Photo/AMWelsh

          It delivered on both counts in spectacular fashion.
          Hosted as a Lenten offering by St. Francis Parish in McKean, artist Ann Schmalstieg Barrett essentially gave a master class in both Scripture and art. A screen and PowerPoint projector promised a visual experience. But Schmalstieg wisely began with words, creating a foundation on which to truly appreciate the visual depictions that would come a bit later.
          Even though some of the most popular imagery of the Sacred Heart may not instantly generate tremendous inspiration — if for no other reason than its ubiquity — Catholics have long been devoted to it. Schmalstieg deftly amplified that devotion, sharing passages from the Old Testament and new that illuminated why saints, theologians, popes and the church have found solace and inspiration in the Sacred Heart.
          Setting the table for her Lenten talk, she first reminded participants that Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day fell on the same date this year.
          “I think this Lent in particular started us off on the right foot to consider the Sacred Heart of our Lord,” she said, noting that it allowed Catholics to reflect on “our Lord’s heart the way that Scripture actually reveals it and the way our church guides us to consider it and pray.”  She then led listeners through a series of Biblical passages detailing how God has revealed his heart to humanity. Although most were quite familiar, the sum was much greater than the parts when presented together:

  • From Jeremiah: “I will give you pastors according to my own heart;”
  • from Hosea: “My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender;”
  • from the Psalms, “My heart is like wax, it is melted within my breast.”

          After sharing several more, Schmalstieg indicated there are more than one thousand references to God’s heart in the Bible.
          Having been made in the image of God, she said, “hopefully our life is a continual revelation of how deep our own hearts are. And that is only a hint of the depth of our Lord’s heart.”
          The artist then connected several New Testament passages to the heart of God, and brought forth examples from the writings of St. Irenaeus, St. Justin, St. Ambrose, St. Francis of Assisi, St. John Chrysostom and more. She wove together not only the heart and blood of Christ, but also the water that flowed from his side as key to the creative love of God and of the church. In short order, she arrived at St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690). While St. Margaret Mary is well-known for her private revelations of the Sacred Heart — Schmalstieg had now presented a much fuller understanding that the message offered by the French saint was both ancient and new.
          At last, it was time for the art.

Artist/Lecturer Ann Schmalsteig Barrett
Photo/ AMWelsh

        Demonstrating that devotion to the heart of Christ began in the earliest days of the church, the first image shared was a 4th century depiction of St. Thomas with his hands in Christ’s side. Schmalstieg said that although we often think of St. Thomas as “doubting,” the story — and the image — demonstrate the possibility of transformation through encounter with the risen Christ.
          Among the paintings shared was one of the most famous, Pompeo Batoni’s 1767 Sacred Heart of Jesus found in Rome’s Church of the Gesu. Inspired by St. Margaret Mary’s visions, it features Christ offering his heart surrounded in a crown of thorns and featuring both flames and a cross. She also showed the painting by Mexican artist Miguel Cabrera, El Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, with a more anatomically correct heart that is surrounded by the heads of putti, or small angels. It is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
          Schmalsteig admitted one of her personal favorites is the 1896 painting by Jose Maria de Ibarraran y Ponce. She has found solace and inspiration in creating a master copy of this image.
          The artist introduced several more modern depictions, including a powerful rendition by French artist Maurice Denis, done during WWI. It shows the Blessed Mother resting her head on her son’s heart with a devastated landscape in the background. Sorrow, courage, tenderness and communion of souls are therefore shown against a scene of desolation and war. Cautioning that it might not speak to everyone, she also showed surrealist artist Salvadore Dali’s 1962 Sacred Heart of Jesus. Difficult to find online as it is now in a private collection, commentary includes Dali’s juxtaposition of Christ’s human strength with a small cross in his hand, indicating how easily he might have chosen not to fulfill his mission.
          Dali shows how Christ “chose to suffer out of love, even though he could have walked away,” Schmalstieg said. “It is the strength of God willing to be weak.”
          The evening concluded with a chance to meet the artist and continue the conversation. But not before she reminded those in attendance that the “Sacred Heart is an expression of God’s compassion” and that all should seek to embrace that reality in their own hearts.
          “Our Lord wants us to grow in relationship,” she said.

             Ann Schmalsteig Barrett learned about the devotion to the Sacred Heart through her experiences with the Legion of Mary. She painted an image of the Sacred Heart for her own home while grieving the loss of her husband, a Marine who died while deployed in Afghanistan.        
“It has comforted me. It has guided my heart through both sorrows and joys,” she said.
“It’s easy for us to go through life being present but not present in our spiritual lives, in our prayer lives, in our relationship with God. Those times, when we are taking part in faith but our minds and hearts are not in it, that is where the Sacred Heart — where God — is seeking to renew our faith, to renew our recognition of his great love for us.”