|Bartolome Murillo, Immaculate Conception|
Madrid, Prado Museum
One of the best-known images of the subject.
It is, however, frequently confused with other things. So, let us define what it is not. First of all, it is not the Incarnation (the special, miraculous conception of Jesus through the intervention of the Holy Spirit) nor is it the Virgin Birth (the actual birth of Jesus). Second, it does not refer to the means of Mary’s conception or to her birth. She was conceived by her parents, Joachim and Anne, and delivered in the usual manner of humans.
Although not specifically mentioned in the Bible, which actually says little about Mary, it is the result of the Church’s reflection on the words of Scripture and on the implications of the Incarnation in the life of Mary. The Biblical basis of the Immaculate Conception can be found in the words of Gabriel at the Annunciation, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women.” (Luke 1:28)
|Piero di Cosimo, Immaculate Conception with Saints|
Fiesole, San Francesco
The saints in the lower section were contributors
to the debates about the Immaculate Conception
and hold scrolls and tablets with their contribution.
Although the consensus seems to have been reached by the 15th century, when the feast day began to be celebrated widely, it was not until 1854 that Pope Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception to be a dogma of the Church.
Visually, the specific subject of the Immaculate Conception had its development following the formation of the 15th-century consensus. The National Gallery in London says of a painting of the subject by the 15th-century Venetian Carlo Crivelli “This may be the earliest dated picture of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception”.2 The painting shows Mary, standing in a sort of marble niche that, with its cornice, reaches to her waist. Behind her is a cloth of state, suspended from a pole. Fruits and vegetables, symbols of fertility, hang from the pole, while on the arms of the niche are vases, one with roses and another with lilies, symbolic of her purity. Two angels hold a scroll above her head and above them God the Father and the Holy Spirit, symbolized as a Dove, lean down from heaven.
This painting seems to establish a specifically Italian vocabulary for the Immaculate Conception. It can be traced in Italy for several centuries.
However, outside of Italy, another type of imagery came to dominate the iconography of the Immaculate Conception. This imagery derives from another Biblical source, the Book of Revelations. Chapter 12 of Revelations describes a figure usually called “the Woman of the Apocalypse”. It reads:
Woman of the Apocalypse, Speciulum humanae salvationis
France (Alsace), 1370-1380
Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France
MS Latin 511, detail
She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth.
Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems.
Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth.
She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne.”
Because the description of the “male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod” seems to refer clearly to Christ this figure came to be associated with Jesus and the woman with Mary during the Middle Ages. It appears frequently in manuscripts and other forms of art.
|Woman of the Apocalypse, Berry Apocsalypse|
France (Paris), ca. 1415
New York, Morgan Library
MS M 133, fol. 36v, detail
|Master of Mary of Burgundy|
Woman of the Apocalypse, Apocalypse of Margaret of York
Belgium (Ghent), 1475-1490
New York, Morgan Library
MS M 484, fol. 59 v. detail
|Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet|
Madonna and Child as the Woman of the Apocalypse
Glass, Germany (Middle Rhine), ca. 1480-1490
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters
|El Greco, Immaculate Conception|
Toledo, Museo de Santa Cruz
|Velazquez, Immaculate Conception|
London, National Gallery of Art
|Valdes Leal, Immaculate Conception |
with Saints Andrew and John the Baptist
Paris, Louvre Museum
|Murillo, Immaculate Conception|
St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum
This image eventually became so dominant that by the 18th century even Italian artists conformed to it.
|Guido Reni, Immaculate Conception|
New York, Metropolitan Museum
|Domenico Tiepolo, Immaculate Conception|
Madrid, Museo del Prado
It is interesting that apparitions of the Virgin Mary have been remarkably consistent with the imagery of the Immaculate Conception, even before this was made a dogma of the Church, which did not happen until 1858.
One such case is the apparition of the Virgin Mary to the Aztec convert, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, in 1531. The miraculous image of the Virgin left on his cloak (or tilma) is similar to that of the images deriving from the Woman of the Apocalypse. However, some of the elements of the image that definitely place it in this line of artistic descent, such as the mandorla surrounding her and the angel at her feet, were added later by artists.
|Our Lady of Guadalupe|
Mexico City, Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Also, during the nineteenth century, in two series of apparitions accepted as authentic by the Church, Mary appeared as the Immaculate Conception to two women in France.
|Francois Carbonnier, Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal|
The first series of apparitions, to St. Catherine Labouré, took place in Paris in 1830. During these apparitions Mary requested that a medal recording her appearance should be made. It has become known as the Miraculous Medal. On it Mary stands on the globe, rays of light stream from her hands. She is surrounded by words which in English say “O Mary Conceived Without Sin, Pray For Us Who Have Recourse To Thee”. Twelve stars appear on the reverse of the medal, surrounding the hearts of Jesus and Mary. This occurred 24 years before the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in the Constitution “Ineffabilis Deus” (“Ineffable God”).3
|Our Lady of Lourdes|
In popular Catholic culture these three images, of Our Lady of Guadalupe, of the Miraculous Medal and of Lourdes, have replaced the earlier images of the Immaculate Conception to which they are obviously related.
© M. Duffy, 2011___________________________________
1. The background of these debates is described Holweck, Frederick. "Immaculate Conception." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 7 Dec. 2011 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07674d.htm>.