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Painting the Immaculate Conception by Eileen Grant

“A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun,

with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Apoc. 12:1).

The Immaculate Conception of Our Lady was depicted by most artists as “the Woman of the Apocalypse”, described above. Throughout the 17th century many paintings and statues portraying this image of the Virgin Mary were produced, especially in Spain where there was a strong devotion to this concept, long before it became official Church dogma in the 19th century. In the East, the feast of the Virgin’s Conception had been celebrated since the 7th century; in 1476, Pope Sixtus IV extended the feast to the entire Western Church. By the 17th century, therefore, as well as a theological doctrine, there was also an established pattern of depicting it in art.

A painter who claimed much of the credit for setting down this pattern was Francisco Pacheco, not the best artist himself but teacher and father-in-law of Velazquez, one of the greatest of all Spanish artists. In his book The Art of Painting, he wrote thus about the Immaculate Conception:

“The version that I follow is the one that is closest to the holy revelation of the Evangelist and approved by the Catholic Church on the authority of the sacred and holy interpreters... In this loveliest of mysteries Our Lady should be painted as a beautiful young girl, 12 or 13 years old, in the flower of her youth. She should be painted wearing a white tunic and a blue mantle. She is surrounded by the sun, an oval sun of white and ochre, which sweetly blends into the sky. Rays of light emanate from her head, around which is a ring of twelve stars. Under her feet is the moon.”

In a not dissimilar way Georges Bernanos in 1936 had his Country Priest describe Our Lady as having “eyes of gentle pity, wondering sadness, and with something more in them, never yet known or expressed, something which makes her younger than sin, younger than the race from which she sprang”.

Painters had actually been working in this style for some time before Pacheco; several, including Velazquez, clothed the Virgin in a pink robe and blue cloak, traditionally accepted to be the appropriate colours. After 1511, when St Beatriz de Silva, a nun who founded the Conceptionist Order, gave evidence that the Virgin appeared to her clad in white and blue. Other popular additions to the scene were attributes of Our Lady referred to in the 16th century Litany of Loreto and taken from Scripture. Another Spanish painter, Francisco Zurbaran, depicted Our Lady in several versions, sometimes in white, but here clothing her in the earlier tradition of pink and blue.

Our Lady is indeed depicted as a young girl, standing on the moon and crowned with stars. Around the crown of stars is a halo of cherubs, peeping through the sunlit heavenly clouds. Below her on the right stands the city of Seville, an important shipping port where Zurbaran lived and worked. Two well known landmarks of the city can be seen – the Torre del Oro, perhaps the House of Gold of the Litany – “[Solomon] overlaid the whole house with gold, in order that the whole house might be perfect; even the whole altar that belonged to the inner sanctuary he overlaid with gold” (1Kings 6:22); and the Giralda Tower, the cathedral bell tower, originally built as a Moorish minaret, perhaps here symbolising the Tower of Ivory, the City of God of the Psalms, “the tower of David, built as a fortress” of the Song of Songs (4:4), ivory symbolising purity. On her left grows a palm tree, symbol of justice – “The righteous flourish like the palm tree” (Ps. 92:12) – and an attribute of Holy Wisdom – “I grew tall like a palm tree in Engedi” (Sir. 24:14) – here associated with Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, for wisdom became incarnate in her Son Jesus whom she carried in her womb.

Next to the palm is the “enclosed Garden” of the Song, often used to symbolise the perpetual virginity of Our Lady: “A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed … a garden fountain, a well of living water” (Song 4:12, 15). On the sea between garden and city sails a little ship, symbol of Our Lady’s role as protector of sailors. In other versions, Zurbaran painted the ship between the curving horns of the crescent moon, giving a stronger emphasis to this role.

On either side of Our Lady, glimpsed through openings in the heavenly clouds, can be glimpsed other attributes from the Litany. To her left, is the Gate of Heaven, for through her obedience she gave human existence to the Son of God who opened heaven’s gate to humanity. Below is the Morning Star, symbol of purity and freshness, which heralds the coming of the Sun in a new dawn: “Like the morning star among the clouds, like the moon when it is full” (Sir. 50:6). Next is the Ark of the Covenant, God’s footstool (Ps.132:7), placed below the Mercy Seat in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, and in Christian tradition often applied to Mary who carried God Incarnate, Giver of the Covenant, in her womb. Another star appears in the next “window, this time the Star of the Sea, not mentioned in the Litany but one of Mary’s titles elsewhere, as protector of seamen.

On her right, first one sees a flight of stairs, sometimes thought to depict Jacob’s Ladder leading up to heaven, but in this instance more likely to symbolise steps leading up to the gate of the Temple in which was to be found the Ark. Below is the Mirror of Justice, in which may be glimpsed a reversed image of the Virgin, “a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness” (Wis. 7:26), for Mary, full of grace, presents us with an ideal image of purity and virtue.

This beautiful example of Zurbaran’s art would have been a focus for meditation on the Litany and on the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, at all times an image of loveliness, even in a dark and broken world.

“Who is this that looks forth like the rising dawn,

fair as the moon, bright as the sun?” (Song 6:10)

Eileen Clare Grant | Aberdeenshire

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