In images called by this name Jesus shows the viewer his heart aflame with love for mankind. He is almost always wears a cinched full-length robe and a mantle that hangs from just one shoulder. In older images the robe will be red and the mantle green, or vice=versa. When pictured full-length, his feet are always bare and sometimes bear the nail marks from the crucifixion. The hands, when visible, will be similarly marked. The heart is usually surmounted by a cross, surrounded by a crown of thorns, and framed by a burst of light. Sometimes it is also pierced by a sword. It is almost always seen on the breast of Jesus, who points to it while engaging the viewer with his eyes, as in the first picture at right, but there are many variations.
Although there had been precedents since the middle ages, widespread devotion to the Sacred Heart began in the 17th century with the visions of a French nun, St. Margaret Mary Alacocque, who said Jesus had asked her to announce that the world should honor him in the figure of his fleshly heart. Images of the vision itself are common in American and European churches (example).
The heart alone is sometimes used as a symbol, as in this stained glass.
Prepared in 2013 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-07-29, 2017-02-05.