Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception

Ital. La Madonna Purissima. Lat. Regina sine labe originali concepta. Spa. Nuestra señora sin peccado concepida. La Concepcion. Fr. La Conception de la Vierge Marie. Ger. Das Geheimniss der unbefleckten Empfangniss Mari. (Dec. 8.)

The last and the latest subject in which the Virgin appears alone without the Child is that entitled the “Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin ; ” and sometimes merely ” THE CONCEPTION.” There is no instance of its treatment in the earlier schools of Art; but as one of the most popular subjects of the Italian and Spanish painters of the seventeenth century, and one very frequently misunderstood, it is necessary to go into the history of its origin.

In the early ages of Christianity, it was usual to celebrate, as festivals of the Church, the Conception of Jesus Christ, and the Conception of his kinsman and precursor, John the Baptist; the latter as miraculous, the former as being at once divine and miraculous. In the eleventh century it was proposed to celebrate the Conception of the Virgin-mother of the Redeemer.

From the time that the heresy of Nestorius had been condemned, and that the dignity of the Virgin as Mother of the Divinity had become a point of doctrine, it was not enough to advocate her excelling virtue and stainless purity as a mere human being. It was contended, that having been predestined from the beginning as the Woman through whom the divine nature was made manifest on earth, she must be presumed to be exempt from all sin, even from that original taint inherited from Adam. Through the first Eve, we had all died ; through the second Eve, we had all been “made alive.” It was argued that God had never suffered his earthly temple to be profaned; had even promulgated in person severe ordinances to preserve its sanctuary inviolate. How much more to him was that temple, that tabernacle built by no human hands, in which he had condescended to dwell ! Nothing was impossible to God ; it lay, therefore, in his power to cause his Mother to come absolutely pure and immaculate into the world : being in his power, could any earnest worshipper of the Virgin doubt for a moment that for one so favored it would not be done ? Such was the reasoning of our forefathers ; and, the premises granted, who shall call it illogical or irreverent ?

For three or four centuries, from the seventh to the eleventh, these ideas had been gaining ground. St. Ildefonso of Seville distinguished himself by his writings on the subject; and how the Virgin recompensed his zeal, Murillo has shown us, and I have related in the life of that saint. (Legends of the Monastic Orders, p. 56.) But the first mention of a festival, or solemn celebration of the Mystery of the Immaculate Conception, may be traced to an English monk of the eleventh century, whose name is not recorded. (Vide Baillet.) When, however, it was proposed to give the papal sanction to this doctrine as an article of belief, and to institute a church office for the purpose of celebrating the Conception of Mary, there arose strong opposition. What is singular, St. Bernard, so celebrated for his enthusiastic devotion to the Virgin, was most strenuous and eloquent in his disapprobation. He pronounced no judgment against those who received the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, he rather leaned towards it ; but he opposed the institution of the festival as an innovation not countenanced by the early fathers of the Church. After the death of St. Bernard, for about a hundred years the dispute slept ; but the doctrine gained ground. The thirteenth century, so remarkable for the manifestation of religious enthusiasm in all its forms, beheld the revival of this celebrated controversy. A certain Franciscan friar, Duns Scotus (John Scott of Dunse), entered the lists as champion for the Virgin. He was opposed by the Dominicans and their celebrated polemic, Thomas Aquinas, who, like St. Bernard, was known for his enthusiastic reverence for the Virgin ; but, like him, and on the same grounds, objected to the introduction of new forms. Thus the theological schools were divided.

During the next two hundred years the belief became more and more general, the doctrine more and more popular ; still the Church, while it tolerated both, refused to ratify either. All this time we find no particular representation of the favorite dogma in Art, for until ratified by the authority of the Church, it could not properly enter into ecclesiastical decoration. We find, however, that the growing belief in the pure Conception and miraculous sanctification of the Virgin multi-plied the representations of her coronation and glorification, as the only permitted expression of the popular enthusiasm on this point. For the powerful Order of the Franciscans, who were at this time and for a century afterwards the most ardent champions of the Immaculate Conception, were painted most of the pictures of the Coronation produced during the fourteenth century.

The first papal decree touching the Immaculate Conception as an article of faith was promulgated in the reign of Sixtus IV., who had been a Franciscan friar, and he took the earliest opportunity of giving the solemn sanction of the Church to what had ever been the favorite dogma of his Order ; but the celebration of the festival, never actually forbidden, had, by this time become so usual, that the papal ordinance merely sanctioned without, however, rendering it obligatory. An office was composed for the festival, and in 1496 the Sorbonne declared in favor of it. Still it remained a point of dispute ; still there were dissentient voices, principally among the Dominican theologians ; and from 1500 to 1600 we find this controversy occupying the pens of the ecclesiastics, and exciting the interest and the imagination of the people. In Spain the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, owing perhaps to the popularity and power of the Franciscans in that country, had long been ” the darling dogma of the Spanish Church.” Villegas, in the “Flos Sanctorum,” while admitting the mod-ern origin of the opinion, and the silence of the Church, contended that, had this great fact been made manifest earlier and in less enlightened times, it might possibly have led to the error of worshipping the Virgin as an actual goddess. (Stirling-Maxwell’s Annals of the Artists of Spain, vol. iii. p. 1074). To those who are conversant with Spanish theology and art, it may seem that the distinction drawn in theory is not very definite or perceptible in practice.

At length, in July, 1615, Paul V. formally instituted the office commemorating the Immaculate Conception, and in 1617 issued a bull forbidding any one to teach or preach a contrary opinion. ” On the publication of this bull, Seville flew into a frenzy of religious joy.” The archbishop performed a solemn service in the cathedral. Cannon roared, and bull-fights, tournaments, and banquets celebrated this triumph of the votaries of the Virgin. Spain and its dependencies were solemnly placed under the protection of the Immaculate Conception, thus personifying an abstract idea; and. to this day a Spaniard salutes his neighbor with the angelic ” Ave Maria purisima ! ” and he responds ” Sin peccado concepida ! ”

I cannot find the date of the earliest picture of the Immaculate Conception; but the first writer on the art who makes allusion to the subject, and lays down specific rules from ecclesiastical authority for its proper treatment, is the Spaniard Pacheco, who must have been about forty years of age when the bull was published at Seville in 1618. It is soon after this time that we first hear of pictures of the Immaculate Conception. Pacheco subsequently became a familiar of the Inquisition, and wielded the authority of the holy office as inspector of sacred pictures; and in his ” Arte de la Pintura,” published in 1649, he laid down those rules for the representation which had been generally, though not always, exactly followed.

It is evident that the idea is taken from the woman in the Apocalypse, ” clothed with the sun, having the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” The Virgin is to be portrayed in the first spring and bloom of youth as a maiden of about twelve or thirteen years of age ; with ” grave sweet eyes ; ” her hair golden ; her features “with all the beauty painting can express ; ” her hands are to be folded on her bosom or joined in prayer. The sun is to be expressed by a flood of light around her. The moon under her feet is to have the horns pointing downwards, because illuminated from above, and the twelve stars are to form a crown over her head. The robe must be of spotless white ; the mantle or scarf blue. Round her are to hover cherubim bearing roses, palms, and lilies ; the head of the bruised and vanquished dragon is to be under her feet. She ought to have the cord of St. Francis as a girdle, because in this guise she appeared to Beatriz de Silva, a noble Franciscan nun, who was favored by a celestial vision of the Madonna in her beatitude. Perhaps the good services of the Franciscans as champions of the Immaculate Conception procured them the honor of being thus commemorated.

All these accessories are not absolutely and rigidly required ; and Murillo, who is entitled par excellence the painter of the Conception, sometimes departed from the letter of the law without being considered as less orthodox. With him the crescent moon is sometimes the full moon, or, when a crescent, the horns point upwards instead of downwards. He usually omits the starry crown, and, in spite of his predilection for the Capuchin Order, the cord of St. Francis is in most instances dispensed with. He is exact with regard to the colors of the drapery, but not always in the color of the hair. On the other hand, the beauty and expression of the face and attitude, the mingled loveliness, dignity, and purity, are given with exquisite feeling ; and we are never, as in his other representations of the Madonna, reminded of commonplace, homely, often peasant, portraiture ; here all is spotless grace, ethereal delicacy, benignity, refinement, repose — the very apotheosis of womanhood.

I must go back to observe, that previous to the promulgation of the famous bull of Pope Paul V., the popular ideas concerning the Immaculate Conception had left their impress on Art. Before the subject had taken an express and authorized form, we find pictures which, if they do not represent it, relate to it. I remember two which cannot be otherwise interpreted, and there are probably others.

The first is a curious picture of the early Florentine school (Berlin Gallery). In the centre is original sin, represented by Eve and the Serpent ; on the right stand St. Ambrose, St. Hilarius, St. Anselm, and St. Bernard ; on the left, St. Cyril, Origen, St. Augustine, and St. Cyprian ; and below are inscribed passages from the writings of these fathers, relating to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin ; all of them had given to her in their works the title of Immaculate, most Pure ; but they differed as to the period of her sanctification, as to whether it was in the moment of conception or at the moment of birth.

The other picture is in the Dresden Gallery, and one of the finest productions of that extraordinary Ferrarese painter, Dosso Dossi. In the lower part of the picture are the four Latin Fathers, turning over their great books, or in deep meditation ; behind them, the Franciscan Bernardino of Siena. (See Legends of the Monastic Orders, p. 304.) Above, in a glory of light, the Virgin, clothed, not in spotless white, but in a richly embroidered regal mantle, ” wrought about with divers colors,” kneels at the feet of the Almighty, who extends his hand in benediction. I find no account in the catalogue whence this picture was taken, but it was evidently painted for the Franciscans.)

In 1617, when the bull of Paul V. was formally expedited, Guido was attached to the papal court in quality of painter, and an especial favorite with his Holiness. Among the earliest accredited pictures of the Immaculate Conception are four of his finest works.

1. The cupola of the private chapel of the Quirinal represents the Almighty meditating the great miracle of the Immaculate Conception, and near him, within the same glory of light, is the Virgin in her white tunic, and in an attitude of adoration. This was painted about 1610 or 1611, when Pope Paul V. was meditating the promulgation of his famous ordinance.

2. The great picture, also painted for Paul V., represents the doctors of the Church arguing and consulting their great books for the authorities on the subject of the Conception (St. Petersburg). Above, the Virgin is seated in glory, arrayed in spotless white, her hands crossed over her bosom, and her eyes turned towards the celestial fountain of light. Below are six doctors, consulting their books ; they are not well characterized, being merely so many ideal heads in a mannered style ; but I believe they represent the four Latin Fathers, with St. John Damascene and St. Ildefonso, who were especial defenders of the doctrine.

3. The next in point of date was painted for the Infanta of Spain, which I believe to be the same now in the possession of Lord Ellesmere. The figure of the Virgin, crowned with the twelve stars, and relieved from a background of golden light, is standing on a crescent sustained by three cherubs beneath: she seems to float between heaven and earth; on either side is a seraph, with hands folded and looks upraised in adoration. The whole painted in his silvery tone, with such an extreme delicacy and transparency of effect, that it might be styled, ” a vision of the Immaculate Conception.”

4. The fourth was painted for the chapel of the Immaculate Conception, in the church of San Biagio at Forli, and is there still.

Just as the Italian schools of painting were on the decline, the Spanish school of art arose in all its glory, and the ” Conception” became, from the popularity of the dogma, not merely an ecclesiastical, but a popular subject. Not only every church, but almost every private house, contained the effigy, either painted or carved, or both, of our Lady, ” sin peccado concepida ; ” and when the academy of painting was founded at Seville, in 1660, every candidate for admission had to declare his orthodox belief in the most pure Conception of our Lady.

The finest Spanish Conception before the time of Murillo, is by Roelas, who died in 1625 ; it is in the Academy at Seville, and is mentioned by Mr. Ford as ” equal to Guido.”

One of the most beautiful and characteristic, as well as earliest, examples of this subject I have seen, is a picture in the Esterhazy Gallery at Vienna. The Virgin is in the first bloom of girlhood ; she looks not more than nine or ten years old, with dark hair, Spanish features, and a charming expression of childlike simplicity and devotion. She stands amid clouds, with her hands joined, and the proper white and blue drapery : there are no ‘accessories. This picture is attributed to an obscure painter, Lazaro Tavarone, of whom I can learn nothing more than that he was employed in the Escurial about 1590.

The beautiful small Conception by Velasquez, in the possession of Mr. [Bartle] Frere, is a departure from the rules laid down by Pacheco in regard to costume ; therefore, as I presume, painted before he entered the studio of the artist-inquisitor, whose son-in-law he became before he was three-and-twenty. Here the Virgin is arrayed in a pale violet robe, with a dark blue mantle. Her hands are joined, and she looks down. The solemnity and depth of expression in the sweet girlish face is very striking ; the more so, that it is not a beautiful face, and has the air of a portrait. Her long hair flows over her shoulders. The figure is relieved against a bright sun, with fleecy clouds around ; and the twelve stars are over her head. She stands on the round moon, of which the upper half is illumined. Below, on earth, and through the deep shadow, are seen several of the emblems of the Virgin — the fountain, the temple, the olive, the cypress, and the garden inclosed in a treillage of roses. (Vide Introduction : The Symbols and Attributes of the Virgin.) This picture is very remarkable ; it is in the earliest manner of Velasquez, painted in the bold free style of his first master, Herrara, whose school he quitted when he was about seventeen or eighteen, just at the period when the Pope’s ordinance was proclaimed at Seville.

Of twenty-five pictures of this subject, painted by Murillo, there are not two exactly alike ; and they are of all sizes, from the colossal figure called the ” Great Conception of Seville,” to the exquisite miniature representation in the possession of Lord Overston, not more than fifteen inches in height. Lord Lansdowne has also a beautiful small Conception, very simply treated. [Lansdowne House, London.] In those which have dark hair, Murillo is said to have taken his daughter, Francisca, as a model. The number of attendant angels varies from one or two to thirty. They bear the palm, the olive, the rose, the lily, the mirror ; sometimes a sceptre and crown. I remember but few instances in which he has introduced the dragon-fiend, an omission which Pacheco is willing to forgive ; “for,” as he observes, “no man ever painted the devil with good will.”

In the Louvre picture, the Virgin is adored by three ecclesiastics. In another example, quoted by Mr. Stirling, a friar is seen writing at her feet : this figure probably represents her champion, the friar Duns Scotus. There is at Hampton Court a picture, by Spagnoletto, of this same Duns Scotus writing his defence of the Immaculate Conception. Spagnoletto was painting at Naples, when, in 1618, ” the Viceroy solemnly swore, in presence of the assembled multitude, to defend with his life the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception ; ” and this picture, curious and striking in its way, was painted about the same time.

In Italy the decline of Art in the seventeenth century is nowhere more apparent, or more offensive, than in this subject. A finished example of the most execrable taste is the mosaic in St. Peter’s, after Pietro Bianchi. There exists, somewhere, a picture of the Conception, by Le Brun, in which the Virgin has no other drapery than a thin transparent gauze, and has the air of a Venus Meretrix. In some old French prints the Virgin is surrounded by a number of angels, defending her with shield and buckler against demons who are taking aim at her with fiery arrows. Such, and even worse, vagaries and perversities are to be found in the innumerable pictures of this favorite subject which inundated the churches between 1640 and 1720. Of these I shall say no more. The pictures of Guido and Murillo, and the carved figures of Alonzo Cano, Montanez, and Hernandez, may be regarded as authorized effigies of ” Our Lady of the most pure Conception ; ” in other words, as embodying, in the most attractive, decorous, and intelligible form, an abstract theological dogma, which is in itself one of the most curious, and, in its results, one of the most important of the religious phenomena connected with the artistic representations of the Virgin.

We must be careful to discriminate between the Conception, so styled by ecclesiastical authority, and that singular and mystical representation which is sometimes called the “Pre-destination of Mary,” and sometimes the “Litanies of the Virgin.” Collectors and writers on Art must bear in mind, that the former, as a subject, dates only from the beginning of the seventeenth century, the latter from the beginning of the sixteenth. Although, as representations, so very similar, yet the intention and meaning are different. In the Conception it is the sinless Virgin, in her personal character, who is held up to reverence as the purest, wisest, holiest of created beings. The earlier theme involves a yet more recondite signification. It is undoubtedly to be regarded as an attempt on the part of the artist to express, in a visible form, the idea or promise of the redemption of the human race, as existing in the Sovereign Mind before the beginning of things. They do not personify this idea under the image of Christ, — for they conceived that, as the second person of the Trinity, he could not be his own instrument, — but by the image of Mary surrounded by those attributes which were afterwards introduced into the pictures of the Conception, or setting her foot, as second Eve, on the head of the prostrate serpent. Not seldom, in a series of subjects from the Old Testament, the pendant to Eve holding the apple is Mary crushing the head of the fiend ; and thus the ” bane and antidote are both before us.” This is the proper interpretation of those effigies, so prevalent in every form of Art during the sixteenth century, and which are often, but erroneously, styled the Immaculate Conception. Those pictures which represent the Virgin Mary kneeling before the celestial throne, while the Padre Eterno or the Messiah extends his hand or his sceptre towards her, are generally misunderstood. They do not represent the Assumption, nor yet the reception of Mary in heaven, as is usually supposed; but the election or predestination of Mary as the immaculate vehicle or tabernacle of human redemption, — the earthly parent of the divine Saviour. An example may be cited in a beautiful and celebrated picture by Francia, now in the church of San Frediano at Lucca. Above, in the glory of heaven, the Virgin kneels before the throne of the Creator; she is clad in regal attire of purple and crimson and gold ; and she bends her fair crowned head, and folds her hands upon her bosom with an expression of meek yet dignified resignation, —”Behold the hand-maid of the Lord ! ” —accepting, as woman, that highest glory, as mother, that extremest grief, to which the divine will, as spoken by the prophets of old, had called her. Below, on the earth and to the right hand, stand David and Solomon, as prophets and kingly ancestors : on the left hand, St. Augustine and St. Anselm in their episcopal robes. (I have mentioned, with regard to the office in honor of the Immaculate Conception, that the idea is said to have originated in England. I should also have added, that Anselm, archbishop of Canter-bury, was its strenuous advocate.) Each of these personages holds a scroll. On that of David the reference is to the fourth and fifth verses of Psalm xxvii. : ” In the secret of his tabernacle shall he hide me.” On that of Solomon is the text from his Song, ch. iv. 7. On that of St. Augustine, a quotation, I presume, from his works, but difficult to make out; it seems to be, ” In coelo qualisest Pater, talis est Filius ; qualis est Filius, talis est Mater.” On that of St. Anselm the same inscription which is on the picture of Cotignola, ” non pute vere esse,” etc., which is, I suppose, taken from his works. In the centre, St. Anthony of Padua kneels beside the sepulchre full of lilies and roses, showing the picture to have been painted for, or under the influence of, the Franciscan Order ; and, like other pictures of the same class, ” an attempt to ex-press in a visible form the idea or promise of the redemption of the human race, as existing in the Sovereign Eternal Mind before the beginning of the world.” This altar-piece has no date, but appears to have been painted about the same time as the picture in our National Gallery, which came from the same church. As a work of Art it is most wonderfully beautiful. The editors of the last excellent edition of Vasari speak of it with just enthusiasm as ” Opera veramente stupenda in ogni parte ! ” The predella beneath, painted in chiaroscuro, is also of exquisite beauty ; and let us hope that we shall never see it separated from the great subject, like a page or a paragraph torn out of a book, by ignorant and childish collectors.

The numerous heads of the Virgin which proceeded from the later schools of Italy and Spain, wherein she appears neither veiled nor crowned, but very young, and with flowing hair and white vesture, are intended to embody the popular idea of the Madonna purissima, of ” the Virgin most pure, conceived without sin,” in an abridged form. There is one by Murillo, in the collection of Mr. [Robert S.] Holford [Weston Birt, Tetbury, Gloucestershire].

Before quitting the subject of the Immaculate Conception, I must refer to a very curious picture called an Assumption, but certainly painted at least one hundred years before the Immaculate Conception was authorized as a church subject.

From the year 1496, when Sixtus IV. promulgated his Bull, and the Sorbonne put forth their famous decree, — at a time when there was less of faith and religious feeling in Italy than ever before, — this abstract dogma became a sort of watchword with theological disputants ; not ecclesiastics only, the literati and the reigning powers took an interest in the controversy, and were arrayed on one side or the other. The Borgias, for instance, were opposed to it. Just at this period, the singular picture I allude to was painted by Girolamo da Cotignola. It is mentioned by Lanzi, but his account of it is not quite correct.

Above, in glory, is seen the Padre Eterno, surrounded by cherubim bearing a scroll, on which is inscribed, ” Non enim pro te sed pro omnibus Mme lex constitutura est.” Lower down, the Virgin stands on clouds, with hands joined, and attired in a white tunic embroidered with gold, a blue mantle lined with red, and, which is quite singular and unorthodox, black shoes. Below, on the earth, and to the right, stands a bishop, without a glory, holding a scroll on which is inscribed, “Non puto verè esse amatorem Virginis qui respuit celebrare Festunr sum Conceptionis ; ” on the left is St. Jerome. In the centre are three kneeling figures : on one side St. Catherine (or perhaps Caterina Sforza, in the character of St. Catherine, for the head looks like a portrait) ; on the other an elderly woman, Ginevra Tiepolo, widow of Giovanni Sforza, last prince of Pesaro ; between them the little Costanzo Sforza, looking up with a charming devout expression. Underneath is inscribed, ” JUNIPERA SFORTIA PATRIA A MARITO RECEPTA. ExvoTo McccccxII.” Giovanni Sforza had been dispossessed of his dominions by the Borgias, after his divorce from Lucrezia, and died in 1501. The Borgias ceased to reign in 1512 ; and Ginevra, apparently restored to her country, dedicated this picture, at once a memorial of her gratitude and of her faith. It remained over the high altar of the church of the Serviti, at Pesaro, till acquired by Mr. Solly, from whom it was purchased by Mr. Bromley. [Sold from the Bromley collection in 1863 to the Marquis of Bath. Vide Redford’s Sales, vol. ii. p. 227.]






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