The Iconography of the Immaculate Conception and the Litany of Loreto – A Lesson for Today from the Spanish Masters

by David Clayton on February 25, 2014

immaculate-conceptionI was recently asked about Zurburan’s Immaculate Conception. I was aware of the general description of the iconography of the image, but could not interpret the details of everything that he has painted. My go-to person in these situations is Dr Caroline Farey, who once again will lead the teaching on the distance-learning diploma Art, Beauty and Inspiration run by the Diocese of Kansas City, Kansas through their Maryvale Center.

The general description comes from the teacher and father in law of Velazquez, Francisco Pacheco. He wrote a book, the Art of Painting in which he describes it. His starting point is the book of 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). Pacheco wrote: ‘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, through his teaching and writing, is hugely influential in the creation of the Spanish tradition of baroque naturalism, from which so many great painters emerged – Velazquez, Zurburan, Murillo, Cano, Ribera. It is particularly frustrating therefore, that only a few pages of over 700 are translated into English. This is one document that does seem worth studying if you are interested in working within the baroque tradition today. As with so much else, what he wrote and taught on this matter was followed by his Spanish followers. In regard to the Immaculate Conception, artists took his guidance for a long time afterwards, perhaps changing a few details. This version, by Zurburan follows it closely but has a red rather than a white tunic. Rather than symbolise her purity directly with white, Zurburan, chose red which is usually considered as representing humanity.

Looking first at the lower section of the painting: the palm tree on the left is the standard symbol of justice flourishing (Psalm 92:12), and also a symbol of Lady Wisdom (Sir. 24:14), consigned to Our Lady. On the right side there is a view of Seville, with its two landmarks, the Torre de Oro and Giralda Tower. Seville is depicted as a port with ship sailing towards it. Zurburan trained and lived in Seville.

On either side of the Virgin through the breaks in the heavenly cloud, there are symbols of the attributes of Mary. On the right, from the top: a flight of steps leading to a portal symbolises the Temple, and below is Mary as the Mirror of Justice. Zurburan has painted a reversed image of Mary in this mirror. In this mirror, we see ourselves as we are called to be in our Christian vocation, she presents an ideal for us, perfect exemplar of grace and virtue. I cannot see anything in the third window on the right – perhaps something has faded, or perhaps Zurburan left it blank, I don’t know.

On the left, from above, are the Gate of Heaven; the Morning Star; the Ark of the Covenant, or possibly the House of Gold; and the Star of the Sea. The Ark of the Covenant, placed below the Mercy Seat in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, was God’s footstool. It contained the stones of the law, given to Moses on Mount Sinai, a sample of manna, and Aaron’s Rod. The ark then comes to symbolise Mary who bore in her womb Jesus, the New Law, our Eucharist and Aaron’s rod which budded (Numbers 17:1-8) is a type of Mary’s Child-bearing. The Morning Star symbolises the time when light is completely fresh, and when everything is still uncorrupted and pure. It is also the planet Venus and is a pagan symbol of female love now purified.

All the scenes shown in these windows correspond to Marian titles taken from the Litany of Loreto. This litany, which was approved by Pope Sixtus V in 1587, was well known in the Seville at this time. This indicates to me that this painting is intended to be used in prayer – as the Litany is recited we can look directly at this painting.

Dr Caroline Farey and I both teach the Art, Beauty and Inspiration diploma in Kansas city, taking place July 11-14, 2014. Go to the Maryvale Center website, here, for more details. In addition I will be teaching two painting courses. One the week before, and one the week after. You can sign up for either or both. If you do both, we will ensure that the second builds on what you learnt in the first. We will focus on the gothic style of illumination of the English School of St Albans, by artists such as Matthew Parris.

An article by Caroline appeared in the The Sower in April 2004

immaculate-conception

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Christi February 27, 2014 at 7:14 am

Hi David, This is wonderful. In this painting, Mary’s hands are very large. Since the painter obviously knew what he was doing I guess he intended this? I’ve read somewhere that in iconography,when a feature is emphasized (like Mary’s hands), this symbolizes something. Is that the case here? Also, if the folded hands of Mary are veiled (I’m looking at a specific painting …) what does that symbolize? Thanks again.

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David Clayton February 27, 2014 at 10:09 am

I’m sorry, I’m not your man here. Caroline Farey is the one who would know that sort of thing

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