The Immaculate Conception

La Inmaculada Concepción

Feast day: December 18

Patroness of Chaplains and Spanish Military

Essay by Paris Bowers

The Immaculate Conception is an iconographic tradition that depicts the purity of the Virgin Mary created through her own virgin conception in the womb of her mother Anne, not the conception of Jesus, as is often mistaken. Mary was intended to be the vessel of the earthly incarnation of God and to be a pure vessel. She was born free from the original sin committed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden which left a stain on all humankind; as a result, she was the only human free from the original sin. This piece of doctrine did not become official until Pope Pius IX cleared it on December 8, 1854 in the papal Bull Ineffabilis Deus; the idea of her immaculate conception came from a second-century apocryphal. There was pressure on the definition regarding the dogma surrounding the Virgin Mary. Her purity had become a big debate in the twelve and thirteenth centuries in which the Dominicans rejected the idea of a virgin birth, while the Franciscans defended it. During the Spanish colonization in America, it was the Franciscans who converted the native populations to Christianity bringing this devotion to the Americas.

The iconography represented in retablos, likely comes from Francisco Pacheco’s Art of Painting written in 1649. Spain was experiencing the Counter Reformation, and Pacheco wrote his book to clarify iconography. His version of the Immaculate Conception represents Mary as a young woman, around the age of 12 or 13, in a white robe and blue cape with her hands either folded on her breast or in a prayer position. If the moon is represented in the depiction, it would be a crescent moon, for it is symbolic representation of purity. A snake may also be present, though Mary will be stepping on it as a representation of her destruction of the hold Satan had over the souls of humankind until Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

The Virgin Mary is shown on a terrestrial plane, though she is standing on a dark blue sphere with a linear cross inscribed in it and a crescent moon, a symbol of her purity (fig. 1). The sun is appearing from behind her figure and clouds edge the top third of the composition. Generally, this composition tradition is supposed to depict Mary as a 13-year-old, however, that is often hard to tell in retablos as she assumes a rather timeless façade. One element that is consistent is Mary being dressed in a white robe with red trim. A blue cloak trimmed in gold is draped around her shoulders. She is wears jewels and has a crown to symbolize her position as the Queen of Heaven.  The oil on canvas painting (fig. 2) was done by an academically trained artist and these academically done pieces were copied by retablo artists. They acted as the precedence for the retablo painters. This oil painting has many of the same compositional elements, however there are some differences. The major difference is that Mary is depicted as being part of the celestial plane and is surrounded by angels on clouds that hold some symbols of her purity. Another major difference is that she is standing atop the world and is crushing a snake under her foot—a symbol of her role as being the Mother of God the Son.

Figure 1. The Immaculate Conception /La Inmaculada Concepción

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin. 14 x 10”. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1964.3.5.

Donor: Dr. Reginald Fisher.

Figure 2. The Immaculate Conception /La Inmaculada Concepción

Anonymous, Mexico, Nineteenth Century.

Oil on Canvas, 20 ¾ x 15 ¼ “. Collection: NMSU Art Gallery #1964.4.4.

Donor: Mr. Fran E Tolland.

References

Attwater, Donald. A Catholic Dictionary. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1949.

Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. Boulder: Westview Press, 2008.

McBrien, Richard P. Lives of the Saints. New York, NY: Harpercolins Publishers Inc, 2001.

Warner,Maria. Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1976.

Zarur, Elizabeth Netto Calil., and Charles M. Lovell. Art and Faith in Mexico: The Nineteenth- Century Retablo Tradition. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.