Images referencing Christ's heart first appeared in New Spain by the mid-sixteenth century, arriving in a world that was already quite familiar with the practice of framing the bodily organ in sacral terms. Pre-Columbian sources, whether sculptures or codices, speak of the importance of heart sacrifice for the appeasement of deities, the imaging of the human soul, the political grandstanding of Tenochtitlán, and, indeed, for the very genesis of the Aztecs themselves. The Aubin Codex's account of the Aztec migration has Huitzilopochtli sacrificing the insubordinate Copil at Chapultepec and tossing the extracted heart into the middle of Lake Texcoco. The heart became a nodal point, sprouting a prickly pear cactus and marking the future home of the Aztec empire. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank's Holy Organ or Unholy Idol? The Sacred Heart in the Art, Religion, and Politics of New Spain rehearses the litany of Aztec stories and pre-Columbian metaphors (although she leaves out the story of Copil's heart), finding “it likely that the significance of the heart among Mesoamerican cultures—not only the Aztecs—became entangled with the Sacred Heart and other heart-affiliated devotions, as did notions about solar power and sacrality” (80). Yet the book ultimately pushes back against the popular notion that the production and popularity of Sacred Heart imagery in colonial Mexico stems from enduring pre-Hispanic rites; instead, the author exposes the Catholic and European origin of the devotion and its iconography.
The introductory chapter explains that the colonial Mexican devotion to Christ's heart was theologically inspired by late medieval devotional texts and subsequent mystical literature (the visions of Marguerite-Marie Alacoque, especially), but it was most consistently adapted, shaped, and promoted by the Society of Jesus. The Jesuit Joseph de Gallifet's seminal text (De cultu sacrosancti cordis Dei ac Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, Rome, 1726), and its engraving of a solitary carnal organ, guided the devotion's look and appeal. Nowhere was the cult more robust than in eighteenth-century New Spain (where De cultu was translated and published by Juan Antonio de Mora in 1732). Here, it was officially maintained by confraternities and evident in the Jesuit strongholds of Tepotzotlán, Mexico City, Puebla, and the Bajío. Criticism of the Jesuits in the years leading up to (and immediately after) their expulsion in 1767 often included the denigration of the Sacred Heart, but the devotion survived the expulsion. The author studies the cult's pictorial record—during its rise, at its height, and when it was subject to fierce, transatlantic attack. The inventive and multivalent iconographies of the eighteenth century, the impact of socioreligious and political discourses, and the influence of a changing historical landscape steer her project.
The first chapter (“Shaping the Devotion”) establishes the devotion's early history and introduces its initial controversies. The second chapter (“Matters of the Heart”) explores the scientific influence—and pictorial, physiological, and epistemological implications—of a heart-centric devotion. Under Jesuit stewardship, an interior heart was fused with the christian heart, allowing the religious emblem to perform with all the detailed traits of the anatomical organ. Mexican artists “followed Gallifet's directive to visually proclaim the Heart's natural form, materializing as well as somatizing God in ink and paint” (100). The third chapter (“Reading, Meditating, Fixating”) focuses on paintings by Miguel Cabrera, Miguel de Herrera, and Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz, discussing Sacred Heart images in terms of their spatial, metonymic, and devotional functions. The fourth chapter (“The Eucharistic Heart”) examines sermons, devotional texts, paintings, and the placement of images (frequently on tabernacle doors), to stress the devotion's sacramental significance. Association with the Eucharist brought the Sacred Heart prestige and “proved an effective way to bolster approval for the cult and to integrate it into local devotional practice” (194).
In the fifth chapter (“Christ's Heart as the Sacramental Sun”), heliocentrism, optics, light, and luminosity are related to materiality (paintings on copper, for instance). “Copper paintings stimulated connections between the works' reflective, brilliant material qualities and their limned iconography, attempting to capture the light of God in the carnal Heart of his son,” Kilroy-Ewbank writes (219–20). Yet the presence of paintings on copper not related to the Heart are so pervasive in New Spain that the value she assigns the material in her study's select cases might be overstated. The sixth chapter (“Divine Champions”) places the Sacred Heart as the epicenter of a Jesuit cult of saints. The paintings by Juan Patricio Morlete Ruiz (Sacred Heart of Jesus), Miguel Cabrera (The Miracle of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga and the Novice Nicholas Celestini) and José de Páez (Sacred Heart of Jesus with Saints) are relevant, as are examples of nun's badges and relicarios. The author concedes that some of these pictorial programs display non-Jesuit actors but awards them membership under the rubric of “Jesuit-supported saints” (222). Nevertheless, some readers would welcome a more thorough discussion of Gallifet and Mora's drafting of non-Jesuit figures (e.g., Alacoque, Gertrude, Teresa, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Bonaventure) for the configuration of a Jesuit devotion (221–22). Was this common Jesuit practice?
The final chapter (“Politicizing the Heart after 1767”) gives readers clear examples of the derision suffered by followers of the Sacred Heart in the late eighteenth century. In Italy, the Augustinian Camillo Blasi and the prelate Scipione de' Ricci called the devotion “heretical and idolatrous” (252). In Mexico, Archbishop Alonso Núñez de Haro y Peralta and members of the Fourth Provincial Council concurred, claiming that the faithful “have made a mess of the body of Christ” (253). One wonders if denunciations were hurled from more popular corners of viceregal society?
This final chapter also locates the late eighteenth-century Mexican corpus within a global sphere: with the Jesuits forced to flee Spanish America, they reengaged with the Sacred Heart on Italian soil. In Imola (outside of Bologna), they commissioned one of the first (if not the first) Italian altar centered on the devotion. Created by Pietro Tedeschi in 1782, the work was a combination of Pompeo Batoni's painting for Il Gesu in Rome (1767) and a print by Lorenzo Capponi (c. 1750). In both paintings, Christ appears holding his heart in his hands, offering it unequivocally to viewers. Prints based on both the Tedeschi and Batoni paintings, in turn, traveled to New Spain and directly influenced two paintings by Mexican artist Andrés López. The case study demonstrates “the vast artistic, religious, and political networks at work in the eighteenth-century Catholic world” (259). Logically, Kilroy-Ewbank considers López's paintings (c. 1795–97) as more than the celebration of a firmly rooted devotion. In one painting, López expands the iconographic bandwidth of his Italian models by framing the devotion as the Eucharistic triumph over heresy. Using local and global sources, the Mexican artist creatively presents the cult, once accused as heretical, as the destroyer of heresy (263). The author ends by linking the Sacred Heart to the Virgin of Guadalupe, since images of both would sometimes occupy the same pictorial space. Unfortunately, she interprets this cohabitation as a “visual marriage” (271), concluding that the Heart, too, played a political role in the “development of creole nationalism” (269).
My disagreements should not detract from the merits of the book. The author's research is extensive and her sources are both solid and wide-ranging; she presents paintings, engravings, sermons, devotional texts, and emblem books with equal care and interpretive skill. Historians, art historians, and scholars of religion will find the project useful and enjoyable. Even with the steady stream of English-language publications related to devotional art in viceregal Mexico, this book stands out for confronting such an immense topic with great precision and insight.