This pair of paintings is inspired by the apparitions to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in the late 17th century and to Sr. Lucy of Fatima in the early 20th century. Christ appeared to St. Margaret Mary “with flames escaping from all parts of His Sacred Humanity, but especially from His chest, which resembled a furnace.” His Heart, “the living source of these flames,” was “surrounded by a crown of thorns and surmounted with a cross.” St. Margaret Mary was asked to console him, to make reparation for sinners, and later to spread various devotions to His Sacred Heart. In 1689, Christ asked her to petition the King to consecrate France to the Sacred Heart, but it was only in 1791, in the midst of the Revolution, that Louis XVI vowed to do so if he was restored to his crown. Instead, he was guillotined on January 21, 1793.
The Immaculate Heart appeared to Sr. Lucy in the Virgin’s “left hand, without sword or roses, but with a crown of thorns and flames.” The piercing thorns, she was told, represented the continual “blasphemies and ingratitude” of men. As with the apparitions to St. Margaret Mary, the requests to Sr. Lucy progressed from personal consolation and reparation, to spreading devotion to the Immaculate Heart, to asking the Holy Father, in union with all the bishops of the world, to consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart. “Like the King of France,” Christ told Sr. Lucy, “they will repent and do it, but it will be late. Russia will have already spread her errors throughout the world, provoking wars and persecutions of the Church: the Holy Father will have much to suffer.”
Kingship—Christ’s, that of France, and that of the Popes—is at the heart of both apparitions. The painting of the Sacred Heart emphasizes this through the flames escaping from the wounds of the crown of thorns form a crown of immolation. The visual counterpoint of the crown of flames in its companion painting is the smoke issuing from the thurible-like Immaculate Heart. Smoke is a sure sign of fire, but it is not fire itself. Likewise, Mary’s Immaculate Heart is a perfect sign pointing to Christ’s Sacred Heart, from which it nonetheless remains distinct. She calls sinners to imitate Her in becoming signs or images of the Sacred Heart, raising the sweet fragrance of spiritual incense to God.