Day 72 – Immaculate Conception II

Diego Velázquez, The Immaculate Conception, 1618-19, National Gallery, London.

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a series! But it is a chance to talk about a very beautiful painting… and to bring us up to date with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. I explained yesterday (Picture Of The Day 71) that there were two main theories – one that Mary had been conceived with sin, and later ‘sanctified’, the second, that she was conceived free from original sin. The latter is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, whereas the former is seen as the ‘Maculist’ doctrine. The adherence to these two doctrines was divided between the two leading Mendicant orders, with the Franciscans originating and then promoting the theory of the Immaculate Conception, while the Dominicans held firmly to the Maculist doctrine. The Spanish got increasingly worked up about this, and eventually King Phillip III (who is rarely mentioned in the annals of Art History) lobbied Pope Paul V (Uncle of Scipio Borghese, who owned many sculptures by Bernini, e.g. POTD 56, so is) to have the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception declared dogma – i.e. an item of faith that is incontrovertibly true. Paul V didn’t go that far, but in 1617 he did issue a decree forbidding any public defence of the Maculist doctrine of sanctification. And the following year, Diego Velázquez painted this beautiful image.

You might think that it couldn’t look more different from the painting we saw yesterday, but, bearing in mind that Carlo Crivelli was working in the late 15th Century, and we are now in the early 17th, and given the vast stylistic difference, they are remarkably similar. Both feature the Virgin Mary, alone, standing, and praying. And in both, she has long blonde hair – this is certainly what counts as ‘blonde’ (‘rubia’, as it’s the Virgin) in Spain.  The fact that her hair is allowed to hang freely, undressed (even if it is partially covered in the Velázquez), implies that this woman is not of marriageable age – or, at least, not yet married – the implication being that she is a virgin.

Her hair seems to blow slightly in the breeze – and a sense of gentle movement flows throughout her entire body, with her young face, entirely unmarked by any blemish (the immaculate complexion?), turned slight to our left, with her hands inflected to our right. She looks down, with modesty and humility, her face illuminated from above and to the left – it’s so delicately painted that even her eyelashes cast a shadow. It is an entirely ‘sculptural’ depiction: young Diego may have started his training painting sculptures, which might have helped him to model form when painting on a flat surface. He was still young when he painted this – twenty, at most, when it was completed. Mary herself has a faint glow, with a gentle light radiating from her head, which is surrounded by a ring of twelve stars. And to her left and right there is a yellow glow on the inside of the clouds.

She stands on the moon, an inverted crescent, which becomes transparent, allowing a view of the distant mountains, and the landscape is populated with various symbols of her perfection – a fountain, a temple, trees and a ship. They are all there, although, if I’m honest, I can’t see them all on my rather shiny screen! Many of these derive from the Song of Solomon. For example, 4:15 mentions ‘A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters’. Yesterday I quoted the figure of ‘Wisdom’ from the book of Proverbs – she also speaks in Ecclesiasticus, and in 24:13 says, ‘I was exalted like a cedar in Libanus, and as a cypress tree upon the mountains of Hermon’ – hence the tall trees. I won’t go into everything, though. Overall, however, the imagery comes from the Book of Revelation, 12:1-3:

And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.

Not all of this will appear that relevant just yet… but the key part is the first verse ‘a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars’. This vision of the Woman of the Apocalypse, who gave birth and defeated the ‘dragon’, was interpreted very early on as representing the Virgin Mary, and it was in this specific form that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception would be represented in paintings. The National Gallery’s example is one of two related paintings, which Velázquez made as part of the same commission. Here is a detail of the second, John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos.

It shows a surprisingly young, and Hispanic-looking, John the Evangelist, looking up to precisely the image evoked by the verses quoted above, even if the stars seem to have shifted towards the dragon.

When seen with the Immaculate Conception it becomes clear that they are a pair – John is having the very vision which will become the iconography of the other painting.  But this doesn’t explain the youth of John. Apart from historical reasons why the Book of Revelation couldn’t have been written by John the Evangelist, about which, if I’m honest, I know nothing, it was supposed to have happened late in his life, after a couple of attempts to martyr him. By the time he gets to Patmos he is usually shown as an old man with a long white beard. Here, he is still represented as if he were the youngest of the apostles. One theory to account for this is that the two models for John and Mary were the artist himself and his new, young wife: he married Juana Pacheco on 23 April 1618, five and a half weeks short of her sixteenth birthday. He was marrying his master’s daughter, in the same way that he would marry his elder daughter Francisca to one of his pupils, Juan Bautista del Mazo, when she was only 14… 

I mentioned Francisco Pacheco, Velázquez’ master, back in POTD 20, saying that, as well as painting, ‘His job was to make sure that the religious images were not heretical’ – and yes, he was involved with the Spanish Inquisition. I bet you weren’t expecting that, even though I have mentioned it before… Many of his thoughts and ideas were eventually published in ‘The Art of Painting’, which came out in 1649, five years after his death. Pacheco’s guidelines for the correct depiction of the Immaculate Conception are especially relevant:

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.

Velázquez follows most of these guidelines, if not all – there is no imperial crown, for example, although he does paint her tunic an imperial purple, rather than white. It’s worthwhile comparing Diego’s image with one painted by his master at about the same time.

Pacheco does include the imperial crown, but even he doesn’t paint a white tunic. There are some of the same symbolic elements at the bottom of the image as well, with a few extra for good measure, not to mention a portrait of the donor, Miguel Cid, a poet. This was painted in 1619, so potentially after the version by Velázquez, but there is little reason to doubt that the nature of the imagery – the iconography – was defined by the master. It’s just the style: what becomes immediately clear is that Velázquez was an infinitely better artist. All of the elements may be the same, or similar, but even in one of his earliest paintings Velázquez shows himself to be free of the last vestiges of Mannerism to which Pacheco is clinging. However artificial and symbolic the representation of the Immaculate Conception could appear, Velázquez manages to make it flow, and look entirely natural, and extremely beautiful.

The two images by Pacheco and Velázquez were undoubtedly painted in the rush of enthusiasm that flowed from Paul V’s decree of 1617 – and Pacheco painted several more. But this enthusiasm was not restricted to Spain, and spread across the whole Hispanic world.

Here, for example, is a detail from an announcement of the decree, dated 31 August 1617, which was published in Lima – it comes from the National Library of Peru. The coat of arms of Paul V Borghese, with its eagle and dragon (POTD 56) appears top left, and that of the Kingdom of Spain is top right. In the centre is an image of the ‘Immaculate’ not unlike these paintings. As it happens the name Immaculada is popular to this day, and Concepción is not unknown… But for Paul V the Immaculate Conception was still a doctrine, and not dogma. It was Pope Pius IX who finally declared it to be an essential belief for all Roman Catholics, and made the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (8 December) a holy day of obligation, on which all Catholics are supposed to attend mass. And that didn’t happen until 1854. By this stage the doctrine had been around for half a millennium… 

p.s. 1 If you had been expecting the Spanish Inquisition, you will have known that I was referring to Monty Python. I’ve always been a fan, but hadn’t seen any for years – decades even – and re-found them on NetFlix, where all four series and all of the films can be found. Their brand of surreal, irrational lunacy seems to fit the present time, even if issues of gender and race are problematic half a century on. I have always known that the foot that comes down at the end of the credits is taken from Bronzino’s Allegory with Venus and Cupid in the National Gallery, but I hadn’t realised what a regular visitor to the Gallery the animator Terry Gilliam must have been – there are figures taken from the collection peppered throughout the early series. I was especially delighted to see God the Father from Crivelli’s Immaculate Conception (yesterday’s POTD) appear at the end of the credits of series 1 to castigate a female nude. 

p.s. 2 I have finally been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, and have agreed to give a couple of zoom talks this week. The first, on Artemisia Gentileschi, is for the Summerleaze Gallery in Wiltshire. To be honest, I’m not quite sure how it’s going to work, but if any of you would like to join at 11.30 (UK time) on Monday morning, please email Patricia Scott Bolton on and she will let you know! I’ll tell you about the second, currently scheduled for 6pm on Wednesday, if it happens, and if I’m allowed to!

p.s. 3 Inevitably the gradually easing of lockdown will mean that I’ll have to go and earn a living, which will mean less time, which will mean it might not be possible to sit and write about a Picture every Day… but I’m still thinking about that. Meanwhile, as I’ve said before (though not for a long time), if there’s anything you’d like me to talk about, please let me know!

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

13 thoughts on “Day 72 – Immaculate Conception II

  1. These have been a delight of lockdown, Richard! Thank you so much! Looking forward to any more you have time for, and to meeting you again sometime at some lecture or another.
    Judith Nash

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for these wonderful essays , they have become a regular part of my lockdown routine . I have loved them and learnt so much !

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Your daily lectures are a delight as they are very informative by providing such detail. Like the others I would like to thank you very much and hope that you will be able to squeeze in more for us to enjoy.
        All the best to you


  3. I get lost in your posts. Beyond impressed how young the artist was to create this masterpiece.

    Sorry I missed the opportunity for your zoom meeting. Hope it went well!

    As always, grateful to learn so much. It’s great to understand the details and history of each piece! 🙂


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