Friday, December 08, 2023

Allegories of the Immaculate Conception

Our readers are all familiar, I am sure, with the classic manner of depicting the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Immaculate Conception, based on the words of St John in Apocalypse 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.” This tradition was popularized especially by Spanish Baroque painters, from the early 17th to mid-18th century, known as the Golden Age in Spain, where devotion to the Immaculate Conception was particularly strong. The white garment represents the immaculate state of Her human nature, while the blue mantle over it represents the royal dignity which comes from Her election by God to be His Mother. (Many of the materials that made for good blue pigments were rare and expensive, and thus often reserved for the most important figures, making it a popular color for the Virgin Mary.)

José Antolínez, ca. 1665 (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (who did more than a dozen paintings of the Immaculate Conception in the classic Spanish vein), ca. 1678. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
There is, however, a different iconographic tradition for the Immaculate Conception, a very complex one which reflects the complexity of the subject, and of the Church’s long discussion of it. This is broadly called the Allegory, in which ideas are conveyed primarily by symbols, and was a prominent feature of all kinds of works in the artistic period which preceded the Baroque, known as Mannerism. Mannerist art tends to be very didactic, as seen below in the painting by Juan de Juanes, in which each symbol is diligently labelled. (Contrast this with the Baroque artists above, who do not need to use labels or Scriptural quotes to let the viewer know that he is looking at a picture of the Immaculate Conception.)

Mannerists liked to multiply symbols to a level where an encyclopedia is needed to decipher their works. This often creates an impression of chaos, while the symbols themselves frequently lean or fall over the line that separates the subtle from the obscure. Today, we tend to think of the Baroque as a very busy style, but the artists of the Baroque considered themselves to be the simplifiers of art compared to their Mannerist predecessors, and rightly so. Simply put, a Mannerist would paint many different symbols of the Immaculate Conception, while a Baroque artist would paint a lot of figures (there are about 20 angels in the Antolínez above), but far fewer kinds of things (a woman, angels, flowers, a palm branch, and a bird.)
In religious paintings, these symbols are often drawn from the Bible, and in an allegory of the Immaculate Conception, from the Song of Songs in particular. The various Litanies of the Virgin Mary were another popular source. (The form which we now call the Litany of Loreto is one among many, and hardly the earliest.)
The wooden paneled ceiling of the Roman basilica of Santa Maria in Domnica, made in the time of Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, who held the title of this church from 1489 until his election to the papacy in 1513, with the name Leo X. Each section represents a title of the Virgin Mary from an earlier form of the Litany of Loreto. (Photo by Mr Jacob Stein, from the third post in this year’s series on the Lenten station churches.)
The choice of symbol was also often inspired by texts used in the theological debates over the Immaculate Conception. These debates became especially vivid in the later 15th century, since the Dominicans, who formed an important presence in all the major theological faculties (and a lot of the minor ones) were mostly opposed to the doctrine. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that in reaction, “In 1497 the University of Paris (long the most prestigious in Europe) decreed that henceforward no one should be admitted… who did not swear that he would do the utmost to defend and assert the Immaculate Conception of Mary.” Paris was followed in this by several others, including both the English universities, and the two oldest in the New World, at Lima and Mexico City, both founded in 1551.
The painting which got me interested in this topic is called, “God the Father Painting the Immaculate Conception”, made in 1659, by the Sicilian artist Matteo Cristadoro. He was born in Agrigento ca. 1635, but the date of his death appears to be unknown; the painting was commissioned by the Benedictine abbey of San Martino delle Scale near Monreale. This specific approach to the subject is inspired by the Church’s liturgical application of the figure of Wisdom in the Old Testament to the Virgin, as in the Epistle for today’s Mass, Proverbs 8, 22-35: “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways, before he made any thing from the beginning. I was set up from eternity, and of old before the earth was made.”
This tradition is also reflected in the bull Ineffabilis Deus, by which Bl. Pope Pius IX proclaimed the formal definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854: “From the very beginning, and before the ages, (God) chose and prepared for his only-begotten Son a Mother, from whom He would become flesh and be born in the blessed fullness of time.”
As God paints the Virgin, who stands on a rose (“rosa mystica” from the litany), Saints Joachim and Anne, Her parents, hold the canvas for Him. Between them, an angel chains the devil, while other angels make paints for God out of material in this world, and pass them up to Him in heaven. Other angels supply Mary’s crown and scepter, the crown of twelve stars from the Apocalypse, and a lily, a symbol of purity. The angel at the upper right holds a banderole with the words of Psalm 45 (vs. 9), which is read at Matins of Marian feasts, “Come and see the works of God.”
At the time this was made, Mannerism had been completely supplanted by the Baroque in major artistic centers like Rome and Bologna for decades, and to the sophisticated eyes of Cristadoro’s contemporaries in, say, the Papal court, this would have looked as old fashioned as a movie like Casablanca does to us. The composition is fairly chaotic, not so much for the number of figures (26 of them), as for the fact that almost all of them are caught in motion. Bright colors contrast everywhere, such as the blue of the Virgin’s robes against the grey background of the canvas, or Joachim’s robe, which stands out as almost the only red in the picture. The banderole harkens back to the older, more obviously didactic approach typical of the Mannerists, and the painting of God as a painter is very typical of their self-referential tendency (a reaction to the naturalism of the Renaissance) to draw their inspiration from art, rather than from life.
An older and more obvious example of Allegory, made ca. 1535-40, comes from the prolific Spanish painter Vicente Juan Masip, also known as Juan de Juanes, (1507-79). As the Trinity crowns the Virgin Mary, dressed in white and blue, banderoles to either side give us one of the Scriptural quotations most often applied to the Immaculate Conception, Song of Songs 4, 7: “Thou art all fair, my love, and there is not a spot in thee.” (This is the verse in the Alleluia of today’s Mass.) Another unfolds at Her feet, “beautiful like the moon” (6, 9), and eight symbols are shown to either side of Her: “chosen like the sun” (ibid.), “star of the sea” (from the hymn of the Virgin at Vespers) etc.
Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The symbolic repertoire of this unknown artist working in Mexico in the second half of the 16th century is almost identical.
Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
Here we see the central panel of an Italian polyptych painted in Savona, in the Liguria region of Italy, in the very early 16th century (artist unknown); the symbols around the Virgin have been reduced to 15, perhaps in reference to the decades of the Rosary. (Both images from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0
The didacticism of the Mannerists reaches an extreme in this 1616 painting by Juan de las Roelas (1570 - ca. 1625), in which the symbols themselves have largely (not entirely) been replaced by texts, helpfully pointed out to us by a dizzyingly large number of people.
Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The Mexican artist Baltasar de Echave Ibía (1585 ca. – 1644), who evidently has no problem with finding blue pigments, incorporates the tradition that the words of Genesis 3, 15 “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed,” also inspired by the dragon of Apocalypse 12, refer to the Immaculate Conception as the beginning of God’s triumph over the devil. This is a motif which we take for granted today, but it was not formally incorporated into the Roman liturgy until Bl. Pius IX promulgated a new form of the Divine Office of the Immaculate Conception in 1863.
Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
Finally, we may note this clever take on the subject by the northern Italian painter Luca Mombello (1518-88), ca. 1570, in which the Virgin Mary, holding the Christ Child, simply replaces Eve in the Garden of Eden.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: