“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” photography exhibition.
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 otherwise known as Trappists. It was built in 1137 in an isolated rural location of Galicia 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. 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.
Symbol I – The Sacred Heart
The symbol that gives the artwork it’s title is the heart.
People sometimes ask if the heart is set in the masonry of the cloister. The answer is no, the heart is an “accidental” phenomenon resulting from the play of shadows and light and dependant on the time of day, the way the light enters the cloister and the type of camera lens that was used. A 1000 return visits would not recreate the special conditions of that particular day.
Symbol II – The Circle of Life & Death
The circle has no beginning and no end, the Alpha and the Omega. It is a classical 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.
It is called “The Circle of Life & Death” 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.
Symbol III – The 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 – 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.
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.
An alternative cross can also be visualised:
In the photograph it appears as if the arms are drooping by the side of the body. Given that the body would have been nailed through the hands and the arms the body 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.
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).