Day 71 – The Immaculate Conception

Carlo Crivelli, The Immaculate Conception, 1492, National Gallery, London.

Right. I warned you (Picture Of The Day 66). I have to talk about the Immaculate Conception, and anyone who has ever been anywhere with me knows I go on about this all the time, because, quite simply, it is the most misunderstood aspect of Catholic theology. And trust me, it has almost nothing to do with Jesus.

Carlo Crivelli, about 1430/5 – about 1494 The Immaculate Conception 1492 Egg on wood, 194.3 x 93.3 cm

Carlo Crivelli’s painting is the first known altarpiece to depict this idea – although that does depend on how you define ‘depict’ – both versions of Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks were painted for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in Milan, for example. It may not be immediately clear that Crivelli is depicting this particular aspect of the Virgin Mary – indeed, it might not be obvious that this is Mary at all, as she doesn’t have her main attribute, the symbol which helps us to identify her – Jesus. Before the end of the 15th Century it was very unusual to see Mary on her own. She is standing in a niche which seems to double as an altar, with flowers on either side. Fruit and vegetables hang from a cane, over which is thrown a pink cloth, which frames her body and goes under her feet. Her hands are joined in prayer, with God the Father looking down from heaven, while two angels fly in between, holding a banner. It will be easier if we look at it from top to bottom.

The figure of God the Father is beautifully foreshortened, not unlike Uccello’s version in The Sacrifice of Noah (Picture Of The Day 37), although the right way up. He appears from the blue-ish clouds, the colour echoed in his cloak, which flows out on either side almost more like a thick, crumpled foil than fabric, its hem creating the most wonderful, erratic, inflected line, as the colours shift from the green lining to the blue outer side. Above, or behind, his head are a host of angels, red heads with wings – these are the Seraphim, the highest rank of the 9 choirs of angels, and closest to the throne of God. Below them we see two ‘regular’ angels, from the choir closest to humans. Also, under God the Father’s hands, is the dove representing the Holy Spirit. In other circumstances we would expect to see the third person of the Holy Trinity, God the Son, below – but instead, we see Mary, his mother.

The two angels look up to God, while simultaneously holding both a scroll and a crown over Mary’s head. The crown, like Mary’s halo, and the sun and moon on either side, are tooled into the background. After the gold leaf had been applied and burnished, small metal tools were held against the surface of the gold and tapped with a hammer, thus denting it slightly. When candles were lit in front of the painting, the light would catch the different surfaces of the gold, so that the halo, crown, sun and moon would shimmer. The crown also has details painted on – there is a spherical ruby towards the left, given light and shade, and a white highlight, to make it look three dimensional – whereas the tooling actually is three dimensional. Crivelli’s use of gold leaf even at the end of the 15th Century often makes people think that he was an out of date artist, clinging on to medieval ideas, but he was actually playing with them in a far more sophisticated way. Look at the foreshortening, after all. 

It is, of course, the scroll which is the most important feature for our understanding of this painting – and indeed, for the understanding of the concept of the Immaculate Conception. It reads:


Which roughly translates as: ‘In the same way that, from the beginning, I was conceived in the mind of God, so have I been made’. The implication is that God always knew that Mary would exist. The idea comes from various biblical texts, the most relevant probably being some verses in the book of Proverbs, in which the character of ‘Wisdom’ is speaking. This is Proverbs 8: 22-23, although the relevant section carries on until verse 35, if you want to look it up. As ever, I am quoting from the King James Version: 

The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was.

Another relevant text is in the Song of Solomon, 4:7:

Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee.

The relevance of this becomes clearer if we see the same verse in Latin: Tota pulchra es amica mea et macula non est in te – the Latin version of ‘spot’ is ‘macula’ – so if there is no ‘spot’, there is no ‘macula’ – i.e. Mary is ‘Immaculate’ – without a mark or stain. She is free of Original Sin. 

There are obviously quite a few leaps of faith here. First of all the biblical texts, both from the Old Testament – i.e. the Jewish Scriptures – do not mention Mary at all. But the assumption of the early Christian theologians was that the Jews had been on the right track, but, as they were born before Jesus, it was not surprising that they had not quite understood God’s message in the right way. Every verse of the scriptures was sifted to find any possible relevance to Christianity, the main aim being to prove that Jesus really was the prophesied Messiah. But along the way, it also became important to find texts that were relevant to Mary too. And that was because of a fundamental problem: Original Sin. The argument goes that, because of the Fall, all descendants of Adam and Eve do wrong. Jesus came to Earth, became human, died as a sacrifice to forgive us for our sins, and triumphed over death, so mankind is redeemed. But in order to become human, he had to be born, and all humans were sinful. How could the Son of God – God himself in one person of the Trinity – be born of something sinful? This was a proposition that many theologians could not tolerate. The only solution was that Mary must have been free of sin in some way – although before Christ’s triumph over death, how was that possible? There were two main theories: 1) Mary was conceived with sin, and somehow, through a special dispensation, God cleansed her of sin in the womb or 2) she was conceived free of sin, without stain or mark, immaculately. The Immaculate Conception. The latter theory was favoured by the Franciscans, and given far greater prominence by Pope Sixtus IV, himself a Franciscan, who instituted the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1476. The feast day is 8 December, nine months before the Birth of the Virgin, which is celebrated on 8 September. What should be clear from this is that the Immaculate Conception refers to the Conception of the Virgin Mary within her mother Anna’s womb, free from Original Sin. As I said, it has almost nothing to do with Jesus (at this stage). How that conception was achieved is not necessarily part of the issue, but most theologians believed that it was a standard sexual conception, with Joachim and Anna somehow not entertaining any sinful thoughts or carrying out any sinful deeds. And just in case I have not made myself clear enough, listen very carefully, I shall shout this only once: THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION IS NOT THE SAME AS THE VIRGIN BIRTH.

What it comes down to is that God knew that giving people freedom of action meant that mankind would sin, and so would have to be redeemed, so Jesus would have to be born, so Mary would have to be free of sin, so he conceived her in his mind before the world began. That’s what the banner means. On to the rest of the painting.

We see Mary surrounded by fruit and flowers, vegetables and vessels – all are symbolic. Mary is fertile – unexpectedly as a Virgin, maybe – but all of the fruit and flowers can refer to that in some way. However, for some, the symbolism is far more specific. The apple, far left, is the standard symbol for original sin, even though there is no mention of an apple in the Book of Genesis. However, it is far easier to say ‘apple’ than ‘the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’, so the apple has always got the blame. However, some people blamed the fig, the orange, or even the quince. Other fruits are available. The oversized gerkin is a bit of a problem, but something with which Crivelli was obsessed – it occurs in many of his paintings. I favour its identification as a gourd, mentioned in the Book of Jonah, towards the end of which Jonah sits in the shade of a gourd tree as God forgives the people of Nineveh. If the apple represents sin, then the gourd represents forgiveness. On the other side there are pears – which in some way represent the birth of Christ, and Mary’s fertility, although I’ve never found a convincing reason why. This is the point at which people google it and tell me what they’ve found, imagining I’ve never thought of doing that – well, I’ve just found a website that says that the pear is a symbol of marital fidelity, but that same site says that grapes are a symbol of ‘lewdness and lustful thoughts’, which implies that the author knows absolutely nothing about Christian art, or, for that matter, Christianity – so don’t believe everything you read online. Which, I suppose, would include this blog… oops. Moving on – the peach. Well, it’s a sweet fruit with a stone from which life will grow. I’m going for Mary, containing Jesus – that’s certainly the symbolism of the hazelnut (which is not in this picture, I know…). 

And then, the flowers: roses – white for purity and red for passion, as in the passion of Christ, the red being his blood. Also, Mary was described as a ‘rose without thorns’ – the beauty, but without the sin, effectively. And the lilies – well, the white of her purity, which is made explicit in another verse from the Song of Solomon, 2: 2: 

As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.

And, as I suggested, the vessels are also symbolic. They contain water, and Jesus is the water of life, and he was in Mary’s womb for 9 months – so they are both symbolic of Mary, the ‘vessel’ containing Christ. The glass vase is more profound. Light passes through glass without breaking it, in the same way that Jesus, the light of the world, passed through Mary, without breaking her virginity. Stained glass in churches is even richer in symbolism, as the light passes through the coloured glass and takes on its colour, in the same way that the light of the world passed through Mary, and took on her humanity. 

The cloth behind Mary reminds us that she is royal – she will be crowned Queen of Heaven – and a royal court was always established by hanging a cloth of honour, in front of which the monarch stood or sat. It hangs down, and falls over the step, so it also functions as a type of ‘red carpet’, and Mary doesn’t have to sully her feet on the ground.

Finally, at the very bottom left, we see Crivelli’s signature: KAROLI CHRIVELLI VENETI MILITIS PINXIT 1492 – ‘Painted by Sir Carlo Crivelli from Venice, 1492’. He was very proud to have come from Venice, one of the great centres of art, even though he didn’t hang around there long enough to paint anything. He was also inordinately proud his knighthood, awarded the year before this painting was completed. He also liked to play games with reality, and here he is pretending that his signature is written on a piece of paper which he has attached to the marble step with six blobs of red wax. Quite a few artists played this game, which makes us think that maybe artists really did this. It is one of the suggestions why so many German paintings are not signed: it is possible that they were, but that the pieces of paper with the names on have all fallen off. He really shows his brilliance with illusionism here – look at the subtle shift in the patterning of the fabric from silver to grey as it goes over the step, and the shift back to silver again as the pressure of Mary’s foot makes the cloth wrinkle and catch the light. The toe of her pink slipper sticks over the step and into our space… she is there with us. All of this is done to make her present, to make us believe in her, and to help us to understand the concept of the Immaculate Conception. It’s flawless.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

14 thoughts on “Day 71 – The Immaculate Conception

  1. Hi Richard – your blog has helped me get through these past ten weeks in a huge way! I have just finished reading A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar (I loved it so much I read it twice!) and it struck me that the last painting he talks about in the book ( Paradise by Giovanni di Paolo) may be a good one for you to post – something we can look forward to when and if this lockdown is ever lifted?
    Best wishes
    Dominique Spratt

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Dominique – I’m so glad you’ve been enjoying it! I don’t know the Hisham Matar book, but I shall look it up… and I will add the Giovanni di Paolo to the list. I have an image of it in my mind’s eye, but I’m not sure if I’ve got the right one.
      Keep safe, and keep well,


  2. Thanks Dr Stemp. I’ve fallen behind in your blogs as I take my time to absorb your information. They’re so rich in detail.

    Love how you zoom in on the pictures as you provide more explanation- which I so appreciate!

    Well I’ll be reading over next few days to catch up -LOL

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I can understand it’ll be harder as you get busier. It’s just been so wonderful seeing such beautiful art and hearing the story behind the piece and the artist!! 🙂

        So I’ll appreciate whatever and whenever you’re able to share.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Not sure if this is your sort of thing, but here is some immaculate music for the feast of the Immaculate Conception

    Enjoy it.

    Judith Nash


      1. That’s a shame as it looked as though it had! You can find it on YouTube if interested – Sing the Score, I Fagiolini. It’s the Monteverdi Ave, Maris Stella



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: