Friday, January 28, 2011

The heart of St. Thomas Aquinas

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
Ineffable Creator,
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.


Anonymous said...

Whatever happened to the proto-veneration due to Saint Joseph?

Anonymous said...

St. Jude is depicted with a medal bearing the face of Christ over his heart.

Anonymous said...

I'd say st. Augustine is another saint whose (flaming) heart is regularly depicted. "My heart is restless until it rests in Thee, O Lord" -St. Augustine

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Anonymouc (6:19am): Good point about St. Augustine! Of course, the depiction of Augustine's heart is not nearly so common as that of St. Thomas' sunburst. Moreover, when his heart is depicted it is generally outside his body (in his hand)...
Nevertheless, you are quite right, there is certainly something of a devotion to the heart of St. Augustine as well![how fitting it is that the two greatest theologians should share this honor]

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Anonymous (5:29am),
You are correct that St. Jude is depicted with the face of Christ over his heart...however (as you mention), this is a medal which is around his neck. I'm not sure that St. Jude qualifies for a "heart" devotion in Christian is not St. Jude's heart which is radiating and drawing attention, but the medal of Christ's Holy Face.

Daniel said...

St. Teresa of Jesus (of Avila) is often depicted with her transverberated heart and there is also a Carmelite liturgical celebration of her experience on August 26.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Nick (4:47am),
I'm not sure how to take your comment... are you really asking what happened to the proto-veneration due St. Joseph? Nothing ever happened to it! It is certainly still there!

Are you trying to suggest that the mere fact that St. Joseph's heart is not depicted in art is somehow an affront?
Obviously, St. Joseph is greater than the other saints (besides Mary). However, this does not change the fact that St. Thomas is the only saint (besides Mary) whose heart is regularly depicted in Christian art (in the form of the sunburst) -- St. Augustine's heart is also occasionally shown.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Daniel (6:38am),
I don't know if I would say that Teresa of Avila is "often" depicted with her transverberated heart...but I agree that she is often depicted in the moment of her ecstasy... occasionally, her heart will be visible in the image.
Still, without in any way intending to slight St. Teresa, I would have to say that there is a big difference between the way in which her heart is occasionally depicted in images of the ecstatic vision and the way that St. Thomas' heart is almost always depicted through the sunburst -- the sunburst isn't pointing to a specific moment in Thomas' life, but to the stable disposition of his heart.

Nick said...

"I'm not sure how to take your comment... are you really asking what happened to the proto-veneration due St. Joseph? Nothing ever happened to it! It is certainly still there!"

I'm just wondering why it's not as much emphasized as Saint Thomas.

"Are you trying to suggest that the mere fact that St. Joseph's heart is not depicted in art is somehow an affront?"

And this proves my point about so little emphasis and understanding of devotion to Saint Joseph. He used to be regularly depicted with his chaste heart, even when he wasn't depicted together with Jesus and Mary.

"Obviously, St. Joseph is greater than the other saints (besides Mary). However, this does not change the fact that St. Thomas is the only saint (besides Mary) whose heart is regularly depicted in Christian art (in the form of the sunburst) -- St. Augustine's heart is also occasionally shown."

Actually, it used to be that many, many saints were depicted with their hearts: Saint Margaret Mary, for example, used to be depicted giving her heart up to Jesus.

But I wonder why Saint Joseph, who deserves greater devotion than all the saints next to Mary as her spouse, is not given the devotion he used to be given.

I'm not saying we should be drawing more hearts or returning to old devotions, I'm just saying: What happened to the Josephine devotion? It almost seems foreign to hear of devotion to him in this day and age.

Nick said...

After reflection I have decided that my comments were inappropriate on Saint Thomas' day. My apologies. Please ask Saint Thomas to pray for me, for I, who offended him on his day, am not worthy to ask for his intercession.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Nick and others,

I don't think that you are fully understanding my central claim -- I am not saying that no other saints' hearts have ever been depicted in Christian art. I am not even so much saying that there are no other saints whose hearts are occasionally depicted in art.

This is my central claim: After Jesus and Mary, no saint other than St. Thomas Aquinas is characterized by this focus on the heart.

Sure, Margaret Mary is pictured in the moment of the revelation of Jesus' Heart and her heart is sometimes shown. Sure, Augustine's heart is sometimes shown on fire. Yes, perhaps, St. Joseph's chaste heart is sometimes depicted. etc, etc.

But, for none of these saints, is the depiction of their heart a central characteristic of the art dedicated to them.
For St. Thomas Aquinas, the sunburst is THE CHARACTERISTIC, and it is always always always over his heart.

Hieronymus said...

I don't think that it is quite correct to say that something placed OVER the heart equals the heart. The sun disc is an attribute of St. Thomas Aquinas but its placement has been probably dictated more by the artistic logic than by any theological considerations, although the idea that the intellect is located within the human heart has certainly played some role here. However, talking about a VENERATION of St. Thomas Aquinas' heart is going way too far.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Hieronymus (8:39pm), You are the first one to mention the idea of venerating St. Thomas' heart...

All I ever said was that there is an artistic devotion to the heart of St. Thomas, which devotion is depicted through the sunburst.
The sunburst could have been above his head, or on his brow, but it is is over his heart. I don't think I am "going way too far" by pointing out this simple fact...

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Other readers who have not commented...

Does anyone else find it strange that not a single positive comment has yet been made? Why is it that most of those commenting thus far have explicitly attacked the simple fact that the sunburst is over Thomas' heart?

I would be especially interested to hear any further reflections from those others who are struck by this fact as I have been...
What do you think? Does you have anything to add (positively) about the heart of the Angelic Doctor?

Frank said...

I remember G.K. Chesterton commenting on the sun disk in art of St. Thomas in his biographical meditation on the Saint.

I've also always been fascinated by the sunburst on St. Thomas Aquinas but have never given time to meditate on it. I think your comments really do shed light on it.

I know that Garrigou-Lagrange constantly defended St. Thomas as being through-and-through Christocentric in his teachings and not a mere, external application of Christian ideas to Aristotelian philosophy.

Oh, and I love that prayer before study by St. Thomas. I have prayed it quite often. I have always found it curious that the greatest theologians were those Saints whose love for God was the greatest, Mary as the preeminent theologian.

I once read of a comparison between St. John Vianney and St. Thomas Aquinas--how the two, though radically different in the intellectual sphere, were quite complementary in their teachings on God and the Christian life.

Well, I'm done with my mental ramblings! Thank you for all your work; it helps a lot! God bless.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Richard G., Thanks for the tip about G.K. Chesterton! I will have to take another look and see if I can find what he says!
Also, I find it quite fitting that you mention Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, he too was a great theologian and a man of intense charity -- it is well known that he had a great apostolate for the poor in Rome.
Blessings to you in Christ our Savior!

Hieronymus said...


You've missed the most important point of my posting, namely, that the sunburst is only placed over the spot where the human heart is commonly assumed to be. In other words, the sunburst DOES NOT equal the heart, although it is conceptually related to it. As for your complaint about the lack of positive comments, well, maybe it is so due to the fact that you are the only person who thinks the sunburst is St. Thomas' heart?8)
Chesterton ("St. Thomas Aquinas", New York: Sheed & Ward, 1933, p. 153) speaks of the sunburst as "a rather curious emblem as if it were some third symbolic and cyclopean eye". He also calls it "no normal Christian sign" and "something more like the disk of the sun such as held the face of a heathen god". Even though he concludes that "its imaginative meaning is strangely apt", GKC nowhere draws a parallel between it and the saint's heart.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I never said that the sunburst IS the heart -- but it is over the heart, rather than over the brow (for example). This is one point which you seem to miss over and over again...

You have admitted that the sunburst is "conceptually related" to the heart...this is all I have claimed, that the sunburst is related to the heart of St. Thomas and that this sunburst is THE CHARACTERISTIC of St. Thomas in art.

Again, I never have said that the sunburst IS St. Thomas' heart. Have you even read the post? What is your problem?
I wrote: "NOW LET ME BE CLEAR, I am NOT claiming that the sunburst so often depicted on St. Thomas’ breast is literally his heart."

I also wrote: "The sunburst on the breast of St. Thomas Aquinas is a symbol of his teachings."
Again, I said it is a sign of "the purity of the Angelic Doctor."

It strikes me as very interesting that you react so negatively to this little devotional piece offered in honor of St. Thomas. I am simply sharing a little reflection -- I am not making that bold of a claim...there is a sunburst over the heart of St. Thomas, this is something which is somewhat particular to St. Thomas, this peculiar artistic devotion has led me (and others) to think of Thomas' heart.

You, on the other hand, seem to be far too wise for my simple devotion...

Hieronymus said...


"It strikes me as very interesting that you react so negatively to this little devotional piece offered in honor of St. Thomas."

That's perhaps because I feel a little uneasy - just like G.K. Chesterton clearly did - about the mildly idolatrous connotations of your observations? Note that at the beginning of your post you place the supposed "heart" of St. Thomas Aquinas alongside the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Sure, you put in a disclaimer in the very next paragraph, and yet...

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

If mentioning the heart of a saint is "mildly idolatrous", I can only begin to guess at what you think of the images of St. Augustine's flaming heart, or St. Teresa's transverberated wildly upset you must be when someone mentions that St. Philip Neri's heart was physically enlarged or that St. Charles Borromeo's heart is incorrupt.

Now, I do see that you ended your indicative sentence with a question mark -- "That's perhaps because I feel a little uneasy...about the mildly idolatrous connotations of your observations?" -- so that makes me feel a little bit better "?"

However, I am personally offended by your accusation of mild idolatry...
Then again, you are clearly the learned doctor here... so many of the wise scorn the simple devotion of the faithful, how many before you have concluded that love for the saints is a form of idolatry!

On the other hand, I am glad to see that you took the time to read at least the first two paragraphs of my original post. Thank you for that courtesy!

Bernardus said...

Thank you Fr. Reginaldus for this post and especially "The prayer before study."

I valued your introduction and it does lend toward some contemplative thought.

As to the meat of the discourse, the sunburst of St. Thomas is as you say, "a symbol of his teachings which, ....,bear forth great light for the whole Church. A Fr. Michael Morris, OP, wrote an article in which he said:
"...St. Thomas Aquinas and his teachings act as a beacon of orthodoxy in a world of diverse approaches in theological history." And he adds a commentary on the painting "The Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas" by Benozzo Gozzoli: "As Thomas sits in honor at the center of the composition, an array of his writings are spread open over his lap radiating beams of light as does the sunburst over his breast (a symbol of Christian wisdom that connects Truth and Love)."

Certainly Thomas beams forth from his pure heart rays of truth and love in upholding and instructing orthodoxy within the Church. And how true are his words today in a society easily led here or there as the whim and wind of media leads.

I don't think I would venerate the heart of St. Thomas as much as I would pray to him for help in understanding all God has for me and for upholding orthodoxy within the church.

What I don't quite understand is why there seems to be such a lack of following his wisdom within the Church....this may be a dumb observation.

Perhaps the greatest lesson he gives by example is what you say at the end. "Blessed indeed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God!"

Thanks again for a thought provoking post.
I continue to keep you in my prayers, please pray for me.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Do not be the least bit discouraged by those who have no love for St. Thomas. Recall that Vatican II was the first ecumenical council to explicitly recommend St. Thomas as the "sure guide" to theology. Indeed, in the past 100 years there has been a great renewal in authentic thomism, especially in the english speaking world -- here we can recall the relatively new focus on Garrigou-Lagrange (the great thomist of the modern era).

Very few priests of the JP II generation will object to the devotion to St. Thomas -- I am convinced that many will begin look to him as a true Doctor, the Common Doctor of theology.

Thanks for the quotation from Fr. Morris... very inspirational (the OPs are our great hope!).

Ernie, you remain in my prayers. "Oremus pro invicem", as they say in the vernacular! :)

Chatto said...


is there a connection between St. Thomas' sunburst and St. Dominic's "corona", which is always depicted above his head? I like the idea of the symbol of Christ's light brought to the world by St. Dominic's mind 'migrating' to the heart of his most famous son.

And let this com box back-and-forth be a lesson to you! Serves you right for publishing something interesting and substantial.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I love the connection you have made between Dominic and Thomas!
Most especially, I love that you have connected the intellectual light with Dominic and the illumination of the heart with Thomas!
Far too often people try to present Thomas as a cold intellectual who had no heart; and, occasionally, some will also present Dominic as a fun-loving friar without much of a mind. You have corrected both!

Also, thank you for the encouragement. :)
Blessings to you.

Solomons Chariots said...


Firstly thank you for another wonderful and thoughtful post.

I would like to offer some positive criticism (If there is such a thing! :) ) about the combox.

It seems to me that in some cases you might be too hasty in taking an adversarial approach to the comments of readers. Perhaps it is possible that many of the readers above are not making negative comments but instead that interpretation of them is the default.

I can see how some (if not all) of the comments are at the very worst neutral observations or statement of fact. In these cases they do not even require a reply, let alone a counter attack or denouncement as 'foolish' etc...

It might be a useful policy to only reply to comments that have an obvious, explicit and serious error and those comments which ask a questions (preferably only the non-rhetorical ones).

Otherwise it seems that the quality of the discussion is even further lowered. The internet doesn't tend to produce a clear, convincing reasonable dialogue delivered in charity. The best policy is to prudentially pick what is worth engaging in.

That is what I have to offer, I hope it isn't taken with any offence.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

It is a great act of charity to correct a brother, thank you!

You are probably correct about picking which discussions are worth getting into. (there is no use in throwing pearls before swine, after all)

I hope you will feel free to comment on future posts as well.
Blessings to you in the Lord.

Chatto said...


thanks for your feedback. Of course, I would like to advance the notion that the Church, not I, has made a connection between the light of mind and heart, and Ss. Dominic and Thomas!

Nazianzen said...

With your complaint about the negative comments posted, I kind of hesitate in posting this, but...

A fourth heart, more "cordiale" than the Angelic's sunburst: St. Gertrude the Great is almost always depicted with a heart, sometimes the Sacred Heart, but usually her own heart, often with the Child Jesus within.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I had forgotten about St. Gertrude the Great ... indeed, you are most certainly correct, there is a devotion to her heart as well! -- whether it be the Sacred Heart or the Child Jesus over her heart.

Thanks for the reminder!

Chatto said...


I don't know if you've had time to search out the quote by Chesterton, but I've just come across it (I'm reading his "St. Thomas Aquinas" at the minute).

GK is musing on how art depicts St. Thomas' personal characteristics, and mentions specifically the portrait by Ghirlandaio. He is struck by the fact that the sun-burst, with the dark face and bright rays, is strangely apt for the saint who hated publicity of any tales of his personal sanctity. A snippet:

"That secret sun, dark with excess of light, or not showing its light save in the enlightenment of others, might well be the exact emblem of that inner and ideal life of the saint" [Chapter V. 'The Real Life of St. Thomas].

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Thank you so much for doing the research! I am very pleased and encouraged to hear what G.K. actually said...
Some of the comments others have made show that there is still a great deal of resistance to Thomism in the "modern" Church.

Also, thanks for the incentive to go back and re-read chapter V of Chesterton's biography on Thomas!

Peace to you! +

A Sinner said...

More hearts, St. Thomas's not among them (albeit there is a clear Spanish bias):

Mary S. said...

Dear friends:

I thought the image represented the Eucharist dwelling in St. Thomas. I thought that because one of my catechumens (I am an RCIA instructor), had a lot of difficulty with the teaching on the real presence, but in the end, accepted it on faith. On the day she received the sacraments of initiation, she was the only one of my students thus far to report a mystical experience. She said she felt that the Eucharist descended into her soul in the form of a sun. This woman was very down to earth and in no way inclined to self-aggrandisement that I ever noticed. Does anyone know of anyone linking that image of the sun to the Eucharist?


Mary S.

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