There are only three hearts, as far as I know, which are regularly depicted in the Catholic artistic tradition – the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and the heart of St. Thomas Aquinas. Now let me be clear, I am not claiming that the sunburst so often depicted on St. Thomas’ breast is literally his heart – neither, of course, are the images of Christ’s or Mary’s Hearts depictions of physical organs – but it is quite striking that the sunburst is over the Common Doctor’s heart (and not, for example, upon his brow).
I do not in any sense intend to equate St. Thomas’ sunburst with the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, but it will be good for us to consider the simple fact: No other saint’s heart is regularly depicted in Christian art. There are, certainly, many saints whose hearts might have been given this focus – consider St. Philip Neri, whose heart was physically enlarged with Love; or St. Charles Borromeo, whose heart is preserved incorrupt; or perhaps even St. Edmund Campion, whose heart was torn from his body. However, there is no other saint whom the Christian artistic tradition regularly depicts with a special focus on their heart.
What is it about St. Thomas Aquinas that gained him the image of the sunburst, and why is it placed over his heart?
The sunburst of St. Thomas Aquinas
Most certainly, the sunburst on the breast of St. Thomas Aquinas is a symbol of his teachings which, themselves illumined by divine truth, bear forth great light for the whole Church. Moreover, since true knowledge of God leads to the love of God and, since charity is properly depicted with fire and heat; the sunburst symbolizes the fire of charity which unites the believer to the Savior – filled with charity himself, St. Thomas has instilled the ardor of love in the hearts of countless faithful.
In another way, the sunburst can be considered as a sign of the purity of the Angelic Doctor. It is well known that purity is a necessary virtue for any who would desire to penetrate the divine truths – for one who lusts after the vain pleasures of the flesh cannot raise his heart and mind to the contemplation of the hidden mysteries of the faith. And St. Thomas was a most pure saint: Early on in his life as a Dominican, St. Thomas had been captured and imprisoned by his family (who desired that he should be a powerful Benedictine rather than a poor friar). His brothers tested his virtue by placing a temptress in his room, but St. Thomas drove her from the cell with a brand which he snatched from the fire. Many years later, St. Thomas told his dear friend, Reginald of Piperno, that, when the temptress had been driven forth, he knelt and most earnestly implored God to grant him purity of mind and body. He fell into a gentle sleep, and, as he slept, two angels appeared to assure him that his prayer had been heard. They then girded him about with a white girdle, saying, “We gird thee with the girdle of perpetual virginity.” And from that day forward he never experienced the slightest motions of concupiscence. Blessed indeed the pure of heart, for they shall see God!
The prayer before study, by St. Thomas Aquinas
You are proclaimed the true font of light and wisdom,
and the primal origin raised high beyond all things.
Pour forth a ray of your brightness into the darkened places of my mind;
disperse from my soul the twofold darkness into which I was born:
sin and ignorance.
You make eloquent the tongues of infants.
Refine my speech and pour forth upon my lips
the goodness of your blessing.
Grant to me keenness of mind,
capacity to remember,
skill in learning,
subtlety to interpret,
and eloquence in speech.
May you guide the beginning of my work,
direct its progress,
and bring it to completion.
You who are true God and true Man,
who live and reign, world without end.