“The Sacred Heart of Oseira” is a black and white 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.
It’s an image of interest due to the presence of divine symbols hidden in plain view.
The Spanish monastery of Oseira is of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance otherwise known as Trappists. It was built in 1137 in an isolated rural location of Galicia, Spain on the Camino de Santiago. At one time its extensive buildings housed hundreds of monks, today some 13 elderly monks rattle around its endless stone corridors. Contrary to popular belief the Trappists do not have a “rule of silence” although small talk is discouraged. I stayed here for 3 nights and barely slept due to the ringing of its bells through the night. It was also a regular spiritual retreat for the English writer Graham Greene.
During the 12th century the Cistercians and the Knights Templar were widely regarded as two sides of the same coin – the one a Catholic monastic order dedicated to retreat and contemplation, the other a Catholic military order based at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It is said that the Cistercians and the Knights Templar combined were the worlds first corporation and international bank.
Symbol I – The Sacred Heart
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.
Symbols V to VII – ???
Are there more symbols hidden in the image?
Yes, there are, though they are not quite so obvious as the other symbols.
Can you find them?
- 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).