Why do artists show Jesus pierced on the right side

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Piercing of Jesus' side
Fra Angelico, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Question: I’ve been wondering why over the centuries artists have portrayed the right side of Jesus pierced with the lance when the heart is actually on the left side. I checked the Shroud of Turin, and it looks like the left side is pierced. I figured if the Romans were such professionals at execution by crucifixion, they would have enough anatomical knowledge to know the heart is on the left side and should have had the lance inserted there. Any thoughts? 

Christine Rath, Parma Heights, Ohio

Answer: The likely answer here is found in Scripture. The most pertinent text is from John’s Gospel: “One soldier thrust his lance into his [Jesus’] side, and immediately blood and water flowed out” (Jn 19:34). While John’s text does not indicate which side was struck, that detail is deduced from a prophecy which the piercing of Jesus’ side fulfills. Ezekiel 47:1ff speaks of water flowing from the right side of the temple. It begins as a tiny rivulet of water and becomes, in stages, a mighty stream that brings healing to everything it reaches. The Church sees this as a prophecy of the blood and water that came forth from the pierced side of Christ, who is the true Temple. A gloss (or summary) of this text became a key text of the sacred liturgy in Easter: Vidi aquam egredientem de templo, a latere dextro (“I saw water flowing from the right side of the temple”). This reference in Ezekiel and in the liturgy to the right side influenced artists in their depiction of Christ’s pierced side.

As for your anatomical concerns, while it is true that a significant portion of the heart is left of center in the human chest, it is still quite central and could probably be reached by a spear from either side. Further, while the text from St. John does not say Jesus’ heart was pierced (but only mentions his side), most presume the heart was pierced as well, given the quick flow of blood. But, the presence of water might indicate it was the pericardium that was pierced. The pericardium is the sack in which the heart sits. When there is trauma to the heart, it is not uncommon for water to accumulate around the heart inside the pericardium. This also causes swelling. And with swelling filling the chest cavity, and the heart likely enlarged as well, the distinctions about the heart being to the left rather than the right may lose significance. 

As for the Shroud of Turin, commentators agree that it depicts the wound on the right side of the Lord’s chest. So there doesn’t seem to be a significant reason to raise serious concern about artistic depictions in this matter.

Msgr. Charles Pope

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.