Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, celebrating the Catholic doctrine that the Virgin Mary was conceived without the stain of Original Sin. It is a teaching long-held by Christians, but which was only formally declared a dogma of the Church by Pope Pius IX in 1854. Those interested in the theological background of this can find extensive information at the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on the subject.
Unlike other events surrounding the lives of Christ and the saints, the Immaculate Conception is, for lack of a better term, conceptual – it is not something that can easily be expressed in a plastic form. We can see a sculpture of the crucifixion of Jesus, or a painting of St. John the Baptist preaching, and immediately understand what is being shown. Portraying a theological concept however, is something that most artists have found particularly challenging. Arguably, no artist has had more of an impact on the popular imagination’s image of the Immaculate Conception than the great Spanish Baroque painter Murillo.
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) was born and died and Seville, though he spent much of his adult life following commissions in both Seville and Madrid. His beautiful and often delicate paintings of scenes from the Life of Christ and of the saints are well-known to many Christians, since they were and are still today often used as source material for printers of things like holy cards, album covers for recordings of sacred music, and for Christmas cards. However his most important artistic contribution as one of the preeminent Spanish Old Master painters is in his multiple depictions of the Immaculate Conception, as the Catholic Encyclopedia states:
His pre-eminence as, superlatively, the painter of the Immaculate Conception seems to have been foreshadowed in the circumstances of his birth. At Seville, in 1617, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was solemnly promulgated for Spain; and this splendid celebration took place in Murillo’s native city only a few months before his birth. The pictorial treatment of the subject had long been determined, in its main outlines, by a vision said to have been vouchsafed to a Franciscan of the sixteenth century, and a hundred examples of it are found among earlier painters. The mere theological dogma of the Immaculate Conception — exemption from the original taint — necessarily eluded all material representation: the equivalent chosen was the theme of the Assumption. The body is seen exempt from all the laws of gravitation. Murillo has treated this theme more than twenty times, without repeating himself or ever wearying: six versions at Madrid, six others at Seville, the famous Louvre picture (dated 1678), and still others scattered over Europe — all these did not exhaust the painter’s enthusiasm or his power of expressing apotheosis.
An interesting chapter in art history occurred in the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century, with respect to one of these images of the Immaculate Conception, now housed in the Prado Museum in Madrid. As the French forces were routed from Spain in 1813, General Nicolas-Jean de Dieu Soult stole (arguably) the most famous of Murillo’s representations of the subject, the “Inmaculada de los Venerables” painted circa 1678. The painting had been commissioned for the chapel of the Hospital de los Venerables in Seville, a home for elderly and retired priests, and was well-known to art historians for its mixture of emotional intensity and references to the Book of Revelation that came to provide a significant influence on the work of later artists’ treatment of the Immaculate Conception.
During his time in Spain, Soult went about Seville and elsewhere with an art expert, and systematically plundered the churches, monasteries, and private collections for paintings which, he was advised, were worth taking – not unlike the Nazis during World War II. When he returned to France, he would periodically sell some of his plunder to dealers or at auction. In 1855 the Inmaculada de los Venerables was sold at auction in Paris for 615,000 francs, which at the time was the highest price ever paid for an Old Master painting at auction. The piece was bought by the Louvre and hung there for nearly a century, despite ongoing protests from the Spanish government that it and other works stolen by the Napoleonic forces ought to be returned to their rightful owners.
In 1941 the Franco regime and the Vichy regime reached an agreement whereby the Prado would exchange one of its numerous Velazquez portraits of Mariana of Austria, second wife of Felipe IV, for the return of the Inmaculada de los Venerables. The painting was handed over to the Prado in Madrid, rather than being returned to its original home in Seville. Today it is displayed in the same room along with several other Murillo representations of the same subject, painted at different points during the artist’s career.
The resulting juxtaposition allows the visitor to compare and contrast Murillo’s treatment and understanding of the subject matter, and provides a vivid example of how his style changed over time. The Inmaculada de los Venerables was recently restored by the Prado to its formal glory, and those interested in seeing the process of restoration can view an interesting series of images about the restoration process on the Prado’s website. It remains one of the most iconographic representations ever produced of this great teaching of the Church.