Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics around the world to attend mass. For those among my readers who are either unaware or uncertain of what the term “Immaculate Conception” refers to, it does not refer to the conception of Jesus but rather of the Virgin Mary in the womb of her mother St. Anne, and the teaching that she was conceived without the stain of Original Sin. Those interested in reading more about this will find an overview of this dogma in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Because of the teaching power of imagery employed by both the Western and Eastern Churches, certain events and aspects of Christianity have been portrayed over the centuries in art at all levels, from high to popular. At this time of year for example, we see images of the events surrounding the Birth of Jesus in Christmas cards, Nativity scenes, ornaments, and so on, because artistic minds have taken the stories contained in St. Luke and St. Matthew’s writings and put them into a plastic form. For example, take a look at this very early depiction of the Adoration of the Magi from around 250 A.D., with the three wise men approaching the Child Jesus seated on the lap of the Virgin Mary, with (presumably) St. Joseph standing behind and the Star of Bethlehem overhead.
For Catholics however, because the Immaculate Conception deals with a theological concept, it was for many centuries difficult or impossible to represent in art. If asked to think up an image of the subject today, most Catholics who paid attention in school and attended mass regularly would think of a young woman, standing on a crescent moon, with stars around her head and perhaps some clouds and attendant angels. What most would not know is that the establishment of this iconography is largely due to the significant influence of Spanish art, and in particular to the teachings of Francisco Pacheco.
If he is remembered at all by armchair art historians today, Pacheco (1564-1644) is probably best known as the teacher and the father-in-law of the greatest of all Spanish painters, Diego Velázquez. Pacheco was not a particularly accomplished painter, it must be said. In this respect he is not unlike Giorgio Vasari, whose seminal “Lives of the Artists” has had a far greater impact on the history of Western culture than anything he happened to paint. Yet Pacheco’s writings on the portrayal of Christian themes, persons, and events have had a profound and lasting impact on our visualization of subjects such as the Immaculate Conception.
Pacheco took his inspiration for the iconography of the Immaculate Conception from the description contained in St. John’s Book of the Apocalypse, a.k.a Revelation: “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars,” (Revelation, 12:1-2). In his highly influential treatise “The Art of Painting”, collected together and published after his death in 1649, Pacheco wrote that in images of the Immaculate Conception the artist would be best served by following certain guidelines:
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. An imperial crown adorns her head, without, however, hiding the stars. Under her feet is the moon.
Pacheco’s instructions on this subject were followed – sometimes to the letter, sometimes with alterations – by generations of Spanish artists, including not only Pacheco himself but his son-in-law Velázquez, as well as the great Spanish Baroque painter Murillo, among others. Indeed, last year on this same Feast of the Immaculate Conception I wrote on the interesting history of the painting of the Immaculate Conception created by Murillo for the retired priests’ home in Seville, which was stolen by Napoleon’s troops. The imagery quickly spread to artists working in the Spanish colonies, naturally enough, since in Pacheco’s day his city of Seville was the primary port for goods traveling to and from the colonies in the Americas.
Over time, the depiction of the imperial crown was often eliminated by subsequent artists. This was probably due to a closer reading of the text, which notes that the Woman was crowned with stars, not wearing a crown AND being crowned with stars. In addition, Mary was usually aged to something more like a young woman in her late teens rather than a twelve-year-old. This aging strikes me as somewhat unusual, since there are a number of popular depictions of Jesus as a child in Spanish devotional art, such as the Niño de Atocha or indeed the Infant Jesus of Prague – which many Catholics probably do not realize is a Spanish statue, not a Czech one.
So it is that down to today, if you were to go to your local Catholic bookstore and ask for a prayer card depicting the Immaculate Conception, chances are you would receive something close to the image described above by Pacheco. He along with the other Spanish artists who followed his advice, and the artists around the world who subsequently followed their example, have had a profound influence on Catholics. Pacheco has helped us to grasp, albeit in a tiny and imperfect way, this great mystery of the faith through a careful consideration of both scripture and Church teaching, brought together into a visual art form.