Thursday, December 8, 2011

Immaculate Conception – December 8

Bartolome  Esteban Murillo, Immaculate Conception
Spanish, c. 1660-1665
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
One of the best-known images of the subject.

The feast of the Immaculate Conception celebrates the Church’s belief that Mary, mother of Jesus, was given the only exemption from Original Sin (the attraction to and inclination toward disobedience to God's will) that has ever been given to a human being.

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)

Over many centuries belief grew that Mary was not just any-girl but that she was specifically chosen and specially prepared for her role as mother of God-become-human. Thrashed out in debates that extended for centuries, a consensus was reached that, from the very first moment of her conception Mary had been given the grace of freedom from any of the residue of the Original Sin, which has been the burden of mankind since the sin of Adam and Eve. Thus she had no inclination toward evil, but was in the same state of innocence as Adam and Eve were before their disobedience.

Piero di Cosimo, Immaculate Conception with Saints
Italian, c. 1510-1520
Fiesole, Church of 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.  The scroll held by the angels reads "Ut imnente Dei ab initio concepta fui ita et facta sum"  translates to "As I was conceived in the presence of God from the beginning, so I was made", a rather beautiful expression of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

Carlo Crivelli, Immaculate Conception
Italian, 1492
London, National Gallery

This painting seems to establish a specifically Italian vocabulary for the Immaculate Conception. It can be traced in Italy for several centuries.

Francesco Signorelli, Immaculate Conception with Saints
Italian, c.1523
Cortona, Museo Diocesano
In this picture by Francesco Signorelli, Mary stands above a tree (reduced in size), upheld by cherubs. Underneath the tree Adam and Eve accept the fatal fruit from Satan. Again, the saints are depicted with their writings.

Domenico Piola, Immaculate Conception
Italian, 1683
Genoa, Church  of Santissima Annunziata del Vastato

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:

“A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.
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.”
(Revelation 12:1-5)

Woman of the Apocalypse
From Speciulum humanae salvationis
France (Alsace), c. 1370-1380
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 511, fol. 37 (detail)

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
From the Berry Apocsalypse
France (Paris), c. 1415
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 133, fol. 36v, detail

Master of Mary of Burgundy, Woman of the Apocalypse
From the Apocalypse of Margaret of York
Belgium (Ghent), c. 1475-1490
New York, Pierpont 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),  c. 1480-1490
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection

During the 16th and 17th centuries, especially in Spain, the elements of this image (sun, moon, crown of stars, robe of light) came to be associated with the concept of the Immaculate Conception and became THE image of the subject.

El Greco, Immaculate Conception
Spanish, 1585
Toledo, Museo de Santa Cruz

Diego Velazquez, Immaculate Conception
Spanish, 1618
London, National Gallery

Juan de Valdes Leal, Immaculate Conception with Saints Andrew and John the Baptist
Spanish, c. 1650-1652
Paris, Musée du Louvre 

Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Immaculate Conception
Spanish, 1680
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

This image eventually became so dominant that by the 18th century even Italian artists conformed to it.

Guido Reni, Immaculate Conception
Italian, 1627
New  York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Domenico Tiepolo, Immaculate Conception
Italian, c. 1767-1789
Madrid, Museo Nacional 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 angels 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.

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 an image of 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

Francois Carbonnier, Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal
French, 1843
Mother House of the Vincentian Fathers 

Four years after the proclamation, in 1858, the second series of apparitions took place outside the Pyrenean town of Lourdes to a girl named Bernadette Soubirous, now Saint Bernadette. Bernadette saw a “lady” very similar to that seen by Catherine Labouré. When, at the request of the clergy, Bernadette asked for her name, the “lady” replied “I am the Immaculate Conception”.

Joseph-Huges Fabisch, Statue of Our Lady of Lourdes
French, 1863
Lourdes, Grotto of Massabielle
This is the statue made in 1863 for the grotto of Massabielle, where the apparitions of Mary to Saint Bernadette took place.  Below the statue are the words which Mary spoke to Bernadette, in the local Pyrenean dialect in which Bernadette heard them " Que Soy Era Immaculada Concepciou".

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.

Popular Prayer Card Images of Our Lady of Lourdes
On the left is the card I remember from my childhood.  It includes not only the image of Our Lady of Lourdes, but an image of the shrine at Lourdes below and the mysteries of the Rosary surrounding the central image.  On the right is a simpler, more recent prayer card of just the image of Our Lady of Lourdes.

© M. Duffy, 2011, images updated 2023.

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 <




Anonymous said...

Are you sure Carbonnier painted that image? Could you please refer me to a source for that information?

mike_7 said...

The painting is by Francois Carbonnier and is from the Vincentian Mother House according to archives at DePaul University (see ).

It was painted in 1842 according to DePaul.