Eternal Hearts—History of Heart Burial in Europe

8. Heart Relics

Heart relic of St. Theresa of Ávila (Monastery of
                  Alba de Tormes, Spain)


From early Christian times on, the veneration of heart relics was a particularly intensive form of worshipping the saints and of intercession. Usually these relics were parts of skeletons, hair, nails or materials and other things that the saints and martyrs had used or even only touched. Conserved tissue and blood are seldom, as well as heart relics, some of which are enclosed in magnificent reliquaries, for example that of St. Theresa of Ávila (†1582) in Alba de Tormes, or that of Saint Camillus de Lellis in Rome, or of St. Lawrence of Brindisi, in Munich. It was not until 2002 that pieces of tissue were removed from the heart of the beatified Dr. László Batthyány-Strattmann, who had already died in 1929. The tissue was distributed into precious reliquaries.

< Heart relic of St. Theresa of Ávila (Monastery of Alba de Tormes, Spain)

The relic cult of the early Middle Ages must have had an influence on heart burial, but otherwise they have nothing in common, especially as the removal of heart tissue was not arranged by its bearer in his lifetime and also there were no motives of the deceased for this form of burial.

9. The hearts of the French Kings

The Merovingians and Carolingians already reported burials of entrails; heart burials have only been reported since the 12th century, e.g. of the founder of Fontevraud, Robert d'Abrissel (†1117), the knight of Ganagobie (see above) or Richard Lionheart.

The Capetians made the Abbey Church of St. Denis near Paris to a royal necropolis, where heart burials also took place, for example of the Valois Franz I, Franz II and Henry III.

The mother of Louis XIV, Anne of Austria, had her heart brought to the Abbey of the Benedictine nuns in Val de Grace, which received a further 45 royal hearts until 1789. Other noble hearts came to monasteries in Paris or the rest of France, or they landed eventually in museums, like the heart of Anne of Brittany in Nantes, or that of Henry II in Louvre.

During their pillaging of churches and monasteries the French revolutionaries of 1789 broke open heart vessels, scattered the contents and brought the precious metal to the republican mint. But they too succumbed to the magical charisma of the heart: After Jean-Paul Marat was murdered by Charlotte Corday, his heart was displayed in a valuable vessel on the altar at a celebration given in his honour.

Hearts of the Bourbons in the crypt of
                  St. DenisAll that is left of the Bourbon hearts today is kept in simple black metal containers behind glass in the Bourbon crypt in St. Denis, where the heart of the Dauphin Louis XVII (see above) stood till the year 2000.

< Hearts of the Bourbons in the crypt of St. Denis

Although Napoleon had made provisions for his heart in his will—it was to be taken to his widow Marie Louise—little is known of its whereabouts. Possibly it rests in his coffin in the cathedral des Invalides, where hearts of outstanding French citizens were brought, as also to the Panthéon. Examples are the heart of "the first grenadier of France" de Latour d'Auvergne (†1800) in des Invalides and the heart of the French statesman Gambetta (†1882) in the Panthéon.