“The Sacred Heart of Oseira” is a photograph of a cloister from the Spanish monastery of Santa María la Real de Oseira. It was taken in 2007 by Paul Preece as part of his “Cloisters” series.
The image is of interest due to the accidental presence of divine symbols hidden in plain view. The term accidental is used in the sense that the symbols were not added to the image in post-production: the symbols are present on the original 5″x4″ black and white negative.
Symbol I – The Sacred Heart – Sagrado Corazon
The symbol that gives the artwork it’s title is the heart.
If the photograph had been taken either earlier or later in the day or even on a different day or season would the heart shape be as strong as it is? The lower parts of the heart are flanked by the upper ends of the strong light entering the cloister. It is difficult to say whether different light would alter the heart shape sufficiently to make it unrecognisable. What is clear is that cloisters live and breathe light and they can go from a dull and murky gloom to a full-on box of light in seconds. Their medieval builders knew this and could plan the layout of the architecture accordingly to utilise the daily passage of the sun and how it filtered into the cloister and its galleries.
Symbol II – The Circle of Life & Death
The circle has no beginning and no end. It is a classic symbol in the history of art for the infinite, the divine, the immortal. God.
The circle has no breaks or branches, it is one continuous line in which all is connected. No point on the line is more important than any other.
I have called it “the circle of life & death” simply because that is what it was named by the first person to recognise it, Luis, a Cistercian monk from the monastery. When I revisited the monastery with a copy of the photograph I had not seen any symbols at all. Luis immediately pointed out both the heart (The Love of God) and the circle (The Circle of Life & Death). What was obvious to Luis was not to me.
It took me a long time, maybe 10 years, before I came to recognise any symbols other than the heart and the circle. Probably because I was not looking closely enough.
Symbol III – The Holy Trinity
In religious art the Holy Trinity has for centuries been represented by various symbols. One of the most common is that of three interlocking circles.
Symbol IV – Hearts
There are more hearts located in the cloister galleries.
Symbol V – The Crucifixion
Historically the crucifixion is represented in two main ways; without the body of Christ it’s known as a cross whereas with the body it’s a crucifixion.
In the photograph it appears as if the arms are drooping by the side of the body. I realise that this is not possible given that the body would have been nailed through the hands and the arms would not have been able to hang like this. However, although not a literal interpretation of the crucifixion the symbolism in the photograph tends towards a certain agony or sense of suffering. The body is tiring, limp, close to death.
For a more standard version of the cross the horizontal axis can be shortened.
The cross is positioned in the dead centre of the image bisecting the other hidden symbols. The crucifixion is central to everything else. It is that which gives meaning to the other symbols.
Symbol VI – The Ichthys
The first appearance of the Ichthys or “fish” symbol in Christian art and literature date to the 2nd century AD. It is believed that the fish symbol was ranked first in importance by early Christians. It was used amongst Christians during centuries of persecution by the Roman Empire as a secret symbol to identify believers, tombs and meeting places.
In the photograph the ichthys symbol can be seen as a series of “Russian dolls” one inside the other vanishing into the distance. Only 2 are illustrated in the sample image. It is easier to see the rest on the original work of 110cm x 100cm.
Symbol VII – The Pierced Heart
There are two main examples of a pierced heart in Christian symbolism:
- The Secret Language of the Renaissance, Decoding the Hidden Symbolism of Italian Art. Richard Stemp, Watkins Publishing London (2018).
- Cracking the Symbol Code, the Hidden Message within Church and Renaissance Art. Tim-Wallace Murphy, Watkins Publishing London (2005).
- Signs & Symbols in Christian Art. George Ferguson, Oxford University Press (1954).