Seventeenth-century statue of the Immaculate Conception in wood and polychrome: Museum of the Church of San Paio, Santiago de Compostela. (For an enlarged image, hover your mouse over the picture or follow this link.)
María Tota Pulchra: 18th/19th century, oil on canvas, Museum of the Church of San Paio, Santiago de Compostela, Spain. (For an enlarged image, hover your mouse over the picture or follow this link.)
Guido Reni, The Immaculate Conception, 1627: Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art. (For an enlarged image, hover your mouse over the picture or follow this link for an image in full resolution.)
The Immaculate Conception: 18th/19th century, oil on canvas, Museum of the Church of San Paio, Santiago de Compostela, Spain. (For an enlarged image, hover your mouse over the picture or follow this link.)
The Immaculate Conception: 18th century, Diocesan Museum, Piazza Armerina, Sicily. (For an enlarged image, hover your mouse over the picture or follow this link.)

The Immaculate Conception

In Roman Catholic teaching, "original sin" is the sin of Adam which humans inherit at conception but which is washed away in Baptism. "The Immaculate Conception" is the doctrine that Mary was preserved from original sin at the moment of conception, receiving in advance the grace of Baptism that her son would earn for all mankind. Writers since the 4th century have referred to Mary as "immaculate" but the doctrine was hotly disputed in the Middle Ages, with the Dominicans generally opposed and the Franciscans favoring it with astonishing fervor (example). It was officially promulgated in 1854 (Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Immaculate Conception").

In the 16th century Molanus (393-94) commended the use of references to the Song of Solomon in images relating to Mary's conception. He mentions the sun, moon, stars, and the words of Canticle 4:7, Tota pulchra est amica mea et macula non est in te ("All beautiful is my friend and there is no stain in thee"). In reference to this verse some Immaculate Conception images are entitled Maria Tota Pulchra. The second one on the left is an example.

In the 17th century a specific iconography for the Immaculate Conception developed from what was taken to be a reference to Mary in Revelation 12:1 – "And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars." As in the picture at left, the images show Mary "clothed" with a sunburst, with twelve stars about her head and the moon beneath her feet.

Sometimes there will be a dragon beneath Mary's feet, in reference to the red dragon of Revelation 12:4 that "stood before the woman who was ready to be delivered, that when she should be delivered, he might devour her son." In the second picture on the left, the dragon is being cast down by the archangel Michael, which is what happens in Revelation 12:7-9.

Angels are usually in attendance. The moon may be a sphere, as in the first picture at left, but it is more commonly a crescent, as in the third. The fourth has Mary standing on clouds, but this is less common.

MORE IMAGES:

  • 1637: Ribera's painting of the subject.
  • Late 17th / early 18th century: painting in Venice's Ognissanti church.
  • 1732: Sebastiano Ricci's painting retains the customary iconography.
  • 19th century: Stained glass window in a church in Canada.
  • 19th/20th century: Statue in the same church.

More of portraits of the Virgin Mary

All photographs taken at the museums by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.