Titus Brandsma and the Devotion to the Sacred Heart

Comment (English) on ‘H. Hartbeelden zonder hart

by Anne-Marie Bos


Titus Brandsma and the Devotion to the Sacred Heart

Anne-Marie Bos[1]


From 1919, Titus Brandsma was closely involved with erecting a monument to the Sacred Heart in Oss where he lived. Within two years, the necessary funds had been collected by the population and a design had been chosen out of various submissions. The decision was made for a Sacred Heart where no visible heart would be displayed. In the text which is reproduced in this collection of papers, Brandsma defends, out of artistic and aesthetic motives, the choice for a design without a visible heart. It is striking that the monument in Oss, when it was unveiled one year later, clearly displayed a visible heart and with the endorsement of Brandsma. How did this happen? And what does this say about the motivations of Titus Brandsma? It started with a discussion in the newspaper.

Polemic in the newspaper

On 11 January 1921 in De Maasbode, at that time the most important Catholic newspaper of the Netherlands, an article appears by Father Desiderius Cox s.s.C.C. (1890-1950), under the title ‘H. Hart-beelden?… zonder hart’ (‘Statues of the Sacred Heart?…without a heart’).[2] Cox points out that among the many Sacred Heart monuments which in previous years have been erected in the public space of towns and villages, and the many which are still in the pipeline, there are images which are called a statue of the Sacred Heart, but are in fact not an image of the Sacred Heart, because they do not show an external heart, but only, ‘by means of gesture and expression are reported to represent the love of the Saviour’s heart’. Cox refutes this. He refers, among others, to a decree of the Congregation of Indulgences from 1877, that the indulgence which people can earn by praying before the image of the Sacred Heart, cannot be earned by praying before a statue where the heart is not materially visible. That artists call such an external heart unnaturally tasteless, is for Cox no valid argument to deviate from this.

Four days later, under the title ‘H. Hartbeelden zonder hart’ (‘Statues of the Sacred Heart without a heart’), the reaction of Titus Brandsma is published. He states that in Cox’s contribution a number of points are overlooked, which are of importance for the reader to form a – possibly not different, but certainly more balanced – judgment.

First of all, Brandsma looks into Cox’s reference to canon law. The decree of the Congregation concerns the procurement of indulgences and given that these can only be procured by means of statues in churches, chapels or altars, this decree has no relevance to statues in the public space. A statue of the Sacred Heart without an external heart in the public space is therefore, according to Brandsma, not in contravention of church precepts.

Then he looks at the artistic aspect. He distinguishes between painting and sculpture. Referring to the manifestations and revelations of the Blessed Margaretha Alaquoque, painting can so dazzlingly represent the light which emanates from the Sacred Heart, that it can be made visible in the body. Meanwhile, sculpture is forced, according to Brandsma, ‘to resort’ to a symbolic heart, on the top of the body. According to Brandsma however, that would not be necessary because sculpture, by means of a gesture, can also unmistakably point to the Sacred Heart (in the body itself).

A week later, Cox reacts in De Maasbode to make ‘some contrasting-remarks’ in connection with the writing of Brandsma.[3] He reiterates his standpoint that the ecclesiastical legislative factor is for the aesthetic. Regarding Brandsma’s reference to canon law, he calls the interpretation which Brandsma gives of the ecclesiastical decrees ‘too cautious’, or too narrowly interpreted. According to Cox, it is very clearly stated that whenever the heart is not externally visible, it is not an image of the Sacred Heart and can make no claim on that name: irrespective of where it is located. He is not in accord with Brandsma’s explanation concerning the aesthetic. The difference that he makes between painting and sculpture, Cox considers irrelevant, and that the Church with her precepts would force artists to submit second or third rate work, is not something which is true, according to him.

Once again, Titus Brandsma feels himself compelled to reply and writes his extensive article. He thinks that Cox is too fast in determining what ‘in this matter is the spirit of the Church’. He thinks that it is certainly very possible that in this time, church authority would take another standpoint. Previously the decision was made as a reaction to the custom of allowing the side-wound of Jesus to be an object of devotion to the Sacred Heart, and not the heart. Now this ‘danger for misinterpretation’ has been reduced to a minimum, it is not improbable that, if this question was to be asked once again at this time, the Congregation would give a different answer than it did in the past. Therefore, according to Brandsma, a more liberal interpretation of the decree is to be expected. That would ‘however not be the first time’.

The veneration of the corporeal heart of Jesus is at stake. ‘However, the question remains, in which way that is possible and fitting’. Brandsma thinks that the symbolic heart is still very much counter to the view of the church. An image that promotes the veneration of the true heart is better, and not a symbolic heart. Brandsma explores in detail the question of how sculpture can give ‘a fitting depiction’ of the Sacred Heart. He makes a difference between a heart which is perceptible to the senses and the corporeal heart. The corporeal nature of the Sacred Heart is at stake, the heart which, in the unity of the body, serves to be venerated. Brandsma suggests guidelines regarding the design which he considers suitable for this bodily heart to be depicted through sculpture. He subsequently illustrates this by citing a number of examples of Sacred Heart statues which, in terms of design, he explicitly rejects.

In the emphasis which Brandsma places on the corporeal, the foundational idea can be heard of his concept of God, as set out in his inaugural speech as rector of Nijmegen University eleven years later. Titus Brandsma pleads for an image of the divine which does not alienate the divine from the human and, by depicting Jesus with a symbolic heart on top of the clothes, He is precisely made artificial. For Brandsma it is important to see the divine close-by: in nature, in human beings, in the reality of life.

The answer must come from Rome

In the discussion pursued by Cox and Brandsma, each viewpoint is clarified, without finding common ground. Time and time again, this contrasting viewpoint is visible in the headings above the articles. Where Cox puts a question mark next to the statute of the Sacred heart, Brandsma then omits this. In De Maasbode of 10 February, Cox responds briefly to the detailed reaction of Brandsma.[4] He argues that there should be an inquiry in Rome as to whether the Congregation permits a more liberal interpretation, and that this cannot be presumed in advance. He sees no basis for Brandsma’s assumption that such a more liberal response will come. In any case, until that time, this ecclesiastical viewpoint remains the guiding authority, according to Cox.

Thereupon, Brandsma makes a request in Rome to seek clarification. The outcome is announced to the people ten weeks later via De Maasbode.[5] On 30 April the editors write that Dr. Titus Brandsma Ord. Carm. has asked them to share that, via the mediation of His Excellency, Father Dr. H. Driessen, Procurator General of the Carmelites, he has submitted the question to the Sacred Congregation of Rites. The response is that the decree of 1877 must be upheld. The heart must be applied on the breast in a way which can be observed by the senses. A statue on which the heart does not appear can make no claim to the name Statue of the Sacred Heart. The question is verbally communicated and not officially raised, and with this is also not officially but unofficially answered. ‘However, with sufficient clarity for the Catholic artist to know the wishes of the Church, in this matter, and to follow them’.

The wording corresponds strongly with the letter which Hubertus Driessen had written to his friend Titus Brandsma on 23 April, from Rome.[6] Driessen also writes that in this matter he did not try in any way to influence the decision but had impartially asked if the decree was still in force. The series of articles which Brandsma had sent were returned to him. ‘In me you definitely do not have a good advocate: this is now the second time that it has misfired,’ Driessen writes. The first time concerned the, by the Vatican censured Albert Servaes’ Stations of the Cross (1919), about which Titus had also made contact with Rome, and had led to a response which did not support Brandsma’s opinion.

The Statue of the Sacred Heart in Oss

As a result that the statue of the Sacred Heart in Oss has to be adapted. The chosen design of the artist August Falise (Wageningen, 1875-1936) ‘depicts Christ, descending from the steps of his throne as the king to his people, yet with a gesture of blessing, whilst the left hand points to the Sacred heart’.[7] It is a statue of Christ the King and the Sacred heart in one. Ini tially, this design had a visible heart, but at the request of the jury, the design was adapted. The jury report said:

The competitor draws attention to [the fact] that the heart is thought of more as an ornament on the clothing. The commission reads into this that the designer has very reluctantly submitted an offering to the impure taste, which longs for an expressively depicted heart on top of the clothing or on the exposed breast. If he could decide to retract his submission, then he would be acting in the spirit of the commission.[8]

In the correspondence between Titus and one of the jury members, it is confirmed that the artist did adapt his design and that this would be produced without a visual heart.[9] That Brandsma heartily supported the vision of the jury is something that we are able to conclude not only from the text fragments which are printed in this set of papers, but also from the description which he gives in this series of articles about Franz Linden’s statue of the Sacred heart, on which no heart can be seen:

Sublime and peaceful, the image has its gaze directed to the observer. The stance is so peaceful, that one can see no other gesture than the left hand pointing to the place where the heart is seated. The clothes are not opened, no side wound is visibly made to deflect attention from that which the sculptor wishes to depict with the means at his disposal.[10]

As a result of the answer from Rome, the Sacred Heart statue in Oss now stands with a symbolic heart. Titus Brandsma complies with ecclesiastical authority, as he indicates by citing his fellow brother, John of the Cross.

It is noticeable that in De Stad Oss[11] nothing is mentioned about this whole polemic and the adaptation made to the design, whilst in this local catholic newspaper, of which Brandsma had been the chief editor in 1919, all other developments about the project are reported; such as issues concerning the location of the image, the plans for promotion and the collection of money, the judgment of submitted designs, the placing and unveiling of the image. Yet, when it comes to the symbolic heart there is only silence. They comply with ecclesiastical authority by adapting the design, but in no other way does this play a role in the devotion. Canon law and aesthetical aspects which were so extensively discussed in De Maasbode, do not form the basis of what animates Brandsma. For him, something else is of much more interest.

In an editorial article in De Stad Oss dated 1920, which is ascribed to Brandsma, (thus before the whole polemic), he offers insight into the value which he himself attaches to the devotion to the Sacred Heart.

Erecting a statue of the Sacred Heart means not only a decoration for the town, it has a deeper meaning:

It concerns here a monument in honour of the Sacred Heart, which means that Oss, in line with so many other much larger and also smaller locations, is erecting a statue which shall speak of faith in God, in a time when people from so many different sides are doing their best to ban God from society and force every expression of faith back to the sitting rooms or preferably to the bedrooms, where people are not present during the day and see nothing of the night.[12]

Therefore, for Brandsma it is a question of faith in the public space, but also of faith in the personal life. It is for him an opinion which stands over-and-against the on-going movement to force God into the background, out of life as it is lived in his time. It is a voice of resistance in which he wishes to involve the whole town.

But the next question which Brandsma then faces is whether or not it is better to reform the inner character of the person instead of devoting so much attention to such a public expression of faith. Is it first of all not better to act out of faith, before you shout it from the rooftops? In the editorial article, Brandsma wards off these critical responses, by stating:

For me, it has absolutely no value that Oss erects a statue in honour of the Sacred Heart, if that statue does not symbolise and actually encourage veneration and atonement. If Oss erects a statue in honour of the Sacred Heart, it must do more than that. That statue must not be a dead piece of stone, but live and speak of God’s love, of love which demands reciprocal love. That statue must be an exhortation and a warning. That statue must, over and over again, say that a hypocritic is someone who contributes to erecting and maintaining that statue but lives as if the heart of God had never been opened, pouring out for him the very last drop of blood. It must remind everyone who contributes to it that their contribution is only of value if there is a pledge to actively live out of that faith.[13]

Brandsma does not set public proclamation and personal acts over and against each other but connects them closely with each other. The monument that is erected by the public must stand as a witness to its belief, as well as an appeal to faith. Not only an appeal to others, but an appeal to everyone, particularly those who contribute to the installation of the statue of the Sacred Heart.

So that we think of that statue as an expression of faith and love, the foundation of a Christian life. This must be the image. If it is this, then it answers to its purpose. Then, and only then, does it make sense to erect such a statue. Then and only then can it be pleasing to God that we do this.[14]

When Titus Brandsma therefore regards ‘in the interest of the good thing’, ‘that in paying homage to Christ in the public [space], in the city squares, a worthy, also from the viewpoint of art, very highly regarded representation is aspired to as much as possible’, as he wrote in his first reply to Cox, then this is not so much because of dogmatic or aesthetic reasons but for the sake of a lived, social, spirituality. The statue must be an expression of one’s faith and love, of a lived spirituality which is formed and shaped in society.


  1. Translation of: Anne-Marie Bos, ‘Titus Brandsma en de Heilig Hartdevotie’, in: Anne-Marie Bos (ed), Titus Brandsma. Spiritualiteit dichtbij in veertien teksten, Baarn 2018, 158-165.
  2. Desiderius Cox, ‘H. Hart-beelden?… zonder Hart’, in: De Maasbode 11 January 1921 (Morning paper), Third paper, 1.
  3. Desiderius Cox, ‘H. Hart-beelden?… zonder hart’, in: De Maasbode 23 January 1921 (Morning paper), Second paper, 1.
  4. Desiderius Cox, ‘H. Hart-beelden?… zonder hart’, in: De Maasbode 10 February 1921 (Evening paper), Third paper, 1.
  5. ‘H. Hart-beelden’, in: De Maasbode, 30 April 1921 (Morning paper), Second paper, 2.
  6. ‘H. Hart-beelden’, in: De Maasbode, 30 April 1921 (Morning paper), Second paper, 2.
  7. ‘Het H. Hartmonument te Oss’, in: De Stad Oss 25 March 1921, 2.
  8. Titus Brandsma, ‘H. Hartbeelden zonder hart’, in: De Maasbode 15 January 1921 (Morning paper).
  9. Letter from G. De Hoogh to Titus Brandsma, Den Haag 3 May 1921. Nederlands Carmelitaans Instituut (manuscript) TBA 27-07.006.
  10. Titus Brandsma, ‘H. Hartbeelden zonder hart’ in: De Maasbode 15 January 1921 (Morning paper).
  11. Catholic newspaper of the city of Oss of which Titus Brandsma was chief editor.
  12. Titus Brandsma, ‘Het beeld van het H. Hart te Oss’, in: De Stad Oss 6 March 1920, 1.
  13. Ibidem.
  14. Ibidem.

Translation: Susan Verkerk-Wheatley / Anne-Marie Bos

© Titus Brandsma Instituut 2018