Burning With Love: Catholic Art Competition Honors the Sacred Heart

Dappled Things’ awards respond to need for fresh, creative and orthodox depictions of Christ.

Detail of ‘The Sacred Heart,’ by Matthew Conner, winner of first place. The Sacred Heart is shown as a sculpted relief with a gilded background.
Detail of ‘The Sacred Heart,’ by Matthew Conner, winner of first place. The Sacred Heart is shown as a sculpted relief with a gilded background. (photo: Courtesy of Dappled Things and Matthew Conner)

Dappled Things, a literary and artistic magazine that describes itself as “wholeheartedly Catholic,” announced the winners of its “Sacred Heart Art Competition” on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. 

In June 2023, Dappled Things challenged artists to submit artwork that reflected devotion to the Sacred Heart, and on June 7, the magazine awarded a $1,000 cash prize to the first-place artist, Matthew Conner, and announced six additional winners. 

The timeline of the contest was no accident: June is the month of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

In a search for fresh depictions of this devotion, Katy Carl, Dappled Things editor-in-chief, aimed for the winning pieces to be “conducive to putting up, to enthroning … treating Christ’s Sacred Heart as the center of your devotion, of your love.” 

The contest was ultimately animated by the conviction that “we can convey the depth beyond the sentimental. … It should touch the soul and the spirit and the intellect,” Matthew Alderman, competition judge and Cram & Ferguson Architects project designer, told the Register. 

He explained that since the Sacred Heart is a relatively recent devotion, classical images can be “quaint. … It’s often a little bit saccharine.” The call for new artwork was meant to highlight the talented work of sacred artists, as well as create a beautiful devotional piece that could be presented on a family’s mantel as well as within a basilica. The awarded artwork is done in a variety of styles, with both Gothic and Eastern iconographic styles represented. 

After receiving more than 200 submissions, Bernardo Aparicio García, founder and publisher of Dappled Things, and Alderman faced the difficult challenge of selecting the winning entries.

Artist Conner was awarded the first-place prize for his painting featuring the Sacred Heart as a sculpted relief with a gilded background. 

‘The Sacred Heart,’ by Matthew Conner
‘The Sacred Heart,’ by Matthew Conner(Photo: Courtesy of Dappled Things and Matthew Conner)

“An artist making a sacred work is trying to use the visual language at their disposal as a gateway, if you will, for prayer,” Conner told the Register, “to have something tangible, material, sacramental, to engage with that will lead them further on to Our Lord.” 

Joseph Jude Macklin’s second-place piece features Italian Gothic facial features along with iconographic style influences, what Alderman termed “an incredible fusion of styles … just incredibly imaginative, and also incredibly literate and learned.” 

Sacred Heart (after Andrea di Bartolo), by Joseph Jude Macklin
‘Sacred Heart (after Andrea di Bartolo)’ by Joseph Jude Macklin(Photo: Courtesy of Dappled Things and Joseph Jude Macklin)Copyright (C) reserved

The third-place award went to Bernadette Carstensen, a San Francisco-based artist who trained as an illustrator and whose work always uses models and includes delicate details and symbols, also drew from iconographic influence and incorporated an intense and direct gaze from Christ to the viewer. 

‘Sacred Heart of Jesus,’ by Bernadette Carstensen
‘Sacred Heart of Jesus,’ by Bernadette Carstensen(Photo: Courtesy of Dappled Things and Bernadette Carstensen)

The competition was motivated by a need for personal enthronement images identified by Aparicio García. Aparicio García explained to the Register that the competition was born out of his own search for a “depiction of the Sacred Heart that I would feel happy to have at home, that I felt would be really conducive to prayer, and that I thought would honor the Sacred Heart of Jesus. And it was really hard to find one.” 

The request for new and yet deeply reverent depictions of the Sacred Heart goes beyond personal devotion, as dioceses and parishes are also searching for fresh artwork. The Diocese of Columbus, Ohio, commissioned Carstensen, and Macklin’s piece was originally created for a local parish in Michigan. 

Honorable-mention awardee Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs, who has pursued sacred art full time since 2019 from her studio in St. Louis, focusing on devotional portraits of saints, altarpieces and Stations of the Cross done primarily in oils, emphasized the importance of her own need for an art piece worthy of enthronement, telling the Register, “I originally started to paint this because we needed an image of the Sacred Heart for our own home. ... The depth of suffering in Christ’s eyes and the majesty in the dignity within his composure: That’s what I was really searching for in my depiction of Christ.” 

Register staff added to this story.

Did You Know?

Pope Pius IX proclaimed the Sacred Heart as a universal feast in 1856. The devotion began in France in 1675, with Jesus’ appearance to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, in which Christ revealed his heart burning with love for humanity and requested that the feast of the Sacred Heart be celebrated on the Friday following the Corpus Christi octave. Images of the Sacred Heart are typically displayed, or enthroned, in family homes as part of an enthronement ceremony, which consecrates a household to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. — Catalina Scheider Galiñanes