Sacred Heart

Sacred Heart

In Brief

Some of the monuments in the Glasnevin cemetery feature Sacred Heart icons: sculptures in which Christ's heart is visible on or in his chest. This imagery belongs to a popular devotional practice founded by Marguerite-Marie Alacoque, a 17th century French nun whose name Buck Mulligan mocks in Scylla and Charybdis: "Blessed Margaret Mary Anycock!" In Hades Bloom thinks of how important her devotion is to Irish Catholics, but he adds some skeptical commentary inspired by a different image of an exposed heart in Shakespeare's Othello. The birds pecking at that heart lead him still further afield to a story of pecking birds told of a Greek painter, whose name he gets wrong, and then confuses with a Greek god.... This wandering chain of mental associations suggests that Bloom is not much interested in the spiritual benefits of the Sacred Heart.

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Marguerite Alacoque was born in 1647 in Burgundy and became an intensely pious child. As a teenager, after four years of debilitating rheumatic fever, she made a vow to the Virgin Mary (whose name she added to her baptismal name) that she would become a nun, at which point she is said to have immediately recovered her health. Several years after that, she had a vision in which Christ urged her to fulfill her vow, telling her that his heart was full of love for her and taking that heart out of his chest and placing it in hers. In 1671 she entered a convent run by the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary, and over the next few years she continued to have visions of the Sacred Heart. Her superiors slowly came to accept her visions as authentic, and after her death in 1690 the Jesuits cultivated her devotion to the Sacred Heart, leading to official church recognition in the late 18th century. In 1824 Pope Leo XII declared Sister Margaret Mary to be Venerable. Pope Pius IX beatified her (hence Mulligan's "Blessed") in 1864, and in 1920 she was canonized (made a Saint) by Pope Benedict XV.

Alacoque's devotional practice became more popular in Ireland than in any other European country, with the possible exception of France. The reasons for the enthusiasm are obscure, though it was undoubtedly stimulated by an influential devotional magazine called The Irish Messenger of the Sacred Heart which the abstinence-promoting Jesuit priest James Cullen began publishing in 1888. Joyce's early fictions glance often at the pervasive presence of the Sacred Heart in Irish Catholic homes. In part 5 of A Portrait of the Artist, as Stephen tries to write about E.C., he recalls being in her parlor, "asking himself why he had come, displeased with her and with himself, confounded by the print of the Sacred Heart above the untenanted sideboard." In "Eveline," a "coloured print of the promises made to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque" hangs on a wall in Eveline's home, and "Grace" notes that Mrs. Kernan "believed steadily in the Sacred Heart as the most generally useful of all Catholic devotions."

The "promises" that Jesus made to Sister Margaret Mary, supposedly twelve in number, included blessing any home in which an image of the Sacred Heart was displayed, giving peace and consolation to the family therein, inspiring its members to seek perfect holiness, and guaranteeing that, if they took communion on the first Friday of every month for nine months, "they shall not die in My displeasure nor without their last Sacraments." Believers made their own pledges in return, consecrating their lives to the Sacred Heart and promising to give Christ all their love and strive to please Him in all their actions. So popular was this devotion that most Irish Catholic homes in 1904 appear to have contained Sacred Heart prints. 

It is clear that Bloom has encountered these icons on people's walls, because when he looks at a carved version in the cemetery he thinks that the heart should be turned sideways and painted red:

The Sacred Heart that is: showing it. Heart on his sleeve. Ought to be sideways and red it should be painted like a real heart. Ireland was dedicated to it or whatever that. Seems anything but pleased. Why this infliction? Would birds come then and peck like the boy with the basket of fruit but he said no because they ought to have been afraid of the boy. Apollo that was.
§ Bloom's reflections on the Catholic cultus (highlighted above in bold type) are interrupted by a phrase that has nothing to do with it: "Heart on his sleeve." The source of this image can be found in Shakespeare, and its implications are very different. In the first scene of Othello Iago assures Roderigo that his devotion to Othello is nothing but a false front disguising vengeful egoism:
In following him, I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end;
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In complement extern, 'tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.  (58-65)
By inverting God's "I am what I am" from the book of Exodus, Iago says not only that his inner nature belies his outward appearance, but also that he is a kind of Satanic anti-God. This pithy self-definition coheres with his anti-Christian ethics. The kind of mutual devotion exemplified by Jesus and Sister Margaret Mary is anathema to him. Opening up his emotions in that way, he says, would be like hanging his heart on his arm for birds to tear at. Having pulled this alternate image of an exposed heart from his memory, Bloom appears to lean more to Shakespearean skepticism than to Catholic religiosity. He projects something like Iago's self-protective scorn onto the carved face in the graveyard: "Seems anything but pleased. Why this infliction?" In Bloom's imagination, the conventionally saccharine image of a Sacred Heart becomes more comically realistic. Jesus, it seems, does not much like having his chest wall opened up for females to fawn over. In fact, he finds the "infliction" seriously annoying.

The thought of birds pecking at hearts leads him into yet another irreverent association. The ancient Greek painter Zeuxis (ca. 464-ca. 400 BCE) was reputed to have painted some grapes with such perfect trompe l'oeil realism that birds flew at the canvas trying to eat them. In his Natural History Pliny the Elder recorded this anecdote along with two others. Zeuxis, he wrote, painted his grapes as part of a competition with Parrhasius and admitted defeat when he asked Parrhasius to pull the curtain in front of his painting, only to be told that the curtain was the painting. Gifford notes the second story: "Zeuxis subsequently painted a child carrying grapes and when birds flew to the fruit with the same frankness as before, he strode up to the picture in anger with it and said, 'I have painted the grapes better than the child, as if I had made a success of that as well, the birds would inevitably have been afraid of it'" (35.36). Clearly this is the source of Bloom's thoughts about an unnamed boy: "Would birds come then and peck like the boy with the basket of fruit but he said no because they ought to have been afraid of the boy."

The folds of Joyce's sentences contain one final allusion, though this one does not figure in Bloom's awareness. He thinks, "Apollo that was," mixing Zeuxis up with Apelles, another Greek painter famed for realism, and mixing the man Apelles up with the god Apollo. These minor mistakes would be utterly unremarkable were it not for a certain tongue-twisting rhyme. Slote cites Fritz Senn's observation that, in a 15 September 1935 letter to his daughter Lucia, Joyce referred to some doggerel lines familiar to Italian children:
Apelle, figlio di Apollo,
Fece una palla di pelle di pollo,
E tutti i pesci vennero a galla
Per mangiare la palla di pelle di pollo
Fatta da Apelle, figlio di Apollo.

(Apelle, the son of Apollo,
Made a ball of chicken skin
And all the fish came to the surface
To eat the ball of chicken skin,
Made by Apelle, the son of Apollo.)

Here the reader's hunt for relevant contexts trails off into delightfully silly wordplay that Joyce could hardly have expected English speakers to know and that does not come close to commenting on the cult of the Sacred Heart (or anything else in Ulysses, for that matter), though it does continue Shakespeare's theme of animals pecking at flesh. Some of his allusions, it seems, are games that the author is playing only with himself, in chains of verbal, visual, and conceptual association that the reader can scarcely begin to imagine.

A spectacularly looped version of the children's rhyme can be heard in the video displayed here.

JH 2022
A Sacred Heart carving in the Glasnevin cemetery, photographed in 2010 by IrishFireside. Source:
Jesus making promises to Margaret Mary. Source:
Oil painting of the Sacred Heart being adored by Blessed Mary of the Divine Heart and Margaret Mary Alacoque, artist and date unknown.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Still Life with Grapes and a Bird, oil on canvas painting ca. 1500-10 by Antonio Leonelli, held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Source:
1613 Dutch engraving held in the Amsterdam University Library, showing Zeuxis running past Parrhasius's painting of a curtain toward his own painting of a boy with grapes, Source: Wikimedia Commons.