The Immaculate Conception: An Artistic Tribute
“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb!” —Luke 1:42
“Jesus came into this world through Mary, and at the end of time he will return through Mary.” —St. Louis de Montfort
(This article was originally published last year.)
Today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and, in honor of Jesus’s Mother, I wanted to offer a brief explanation of what “Immaculate Conception” means and share a beautiful painting depicting Mary under this title.
The Immaculate Conception was not defined dogma until 1854, but it was believed and defended by ordinary Catholics and great theologians many centuries before that. The doctrine was always based in the Bible verse (Lk. 1:28), “And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” That’s already an unusual greeting in that angels in the Bible usually appear and start issuing orders, rather than offering a respectful greeting. But it’s much more than a mere compliment.
Luke’s Gospel, of course, was originally written in Greek, and the word translated “full of grace” is kekaritomene (κεχαριτωμενη). This perfect passive participial form is rare in Greek, and unfortunately has no direct translation into English. The closest literal translation is “to have been fully perfected in grace in the past, a state which persists into the present.” This has long been explained by the Immaculate Conception—that is, through the foreseen merits of Jesus Christ’s salvific death, Mary was miraculously preserved from the original sin every human inherits, at the moment of her conception.
This was very fitting for the Mother of God. After all, Jesus was in Mary’s womb for nine months, and He got all of His human DNA from her—how would it be appropriate for her to be sinful? The early Church understood that insulting Mary insulted Jesus. Mary is only important because Jesus made her so, but Jesus made her the holiest person ever at her conception. That is why St. Elizabeth calls her “blessed among women” and Mary prophesies, “Behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” (Lk. 1:42, 48)
Jesus, God himself, showed unique deference to her as well. He did not wish to perform a miracle at Cana (John 2) but He did, after she asked Him to do so. All Christians believe in intercession, which is why we ask others for prayers. Whom better to ask than Jesus’ own mother, who conceived Him through God’s power, gave birth to Him, raised Him and lived with Him for 30 years, and stood beside Him as he died? No one was or is closer to Jesus than Mary.
Below is a magnificent depiction of the Immaculate Conception:
This painting is rich in symbolism. Notice Mary is depicted standing on a serpent. It’s a fairly common depiction of Mary in art—why? In Genesis 3:15, when God predicts the coming of the Messiah, He specifically says the “seed” of the woman will oppose the devil, who in that scene is disguised as a serpent. The wording is particularly striking because both ancient Hebrews and modern Christians know that only men, not women, have seed—but the Messiah in fact entirely took his genetics from his mother. Furthermore, as history’s greatest Biblical scholar and linguist St. Jerome noted, when God prophecies the Messiah to the devil-serpent, “he shall crush your head,” the pronoun in Hebrew could actually be translated as either “he” or “she.” In other words, because it was through Mary that Jesus came into the world, Mary was allowed to help Jesus conquer Satan. Thus showing Mary standing on a serpent is a Biblical reference. The globe of earth below the serpent likely represents Christ’s many references to Satan as ruler of this world, filled with sin as it is.
Another Scriptural reference is the crown of twelve stars, harking to Revelation 12. From the earliest days of Christianity, the woman described in Revelation 12 as wearing a crown of twelve stars was interpreted as symbolizing both the Church (ie the “new Jerusalem”) and Mary. The number twelve probably signifies the twelve apostles, Christ’s closest friends and the first priests, and the twelve tribes of Israel. The moon upon which Mary stands is also part of the description of the woman in Revelation 12.
The cherub angel bowing at Mary’s feet holds lilies, traditionally a symbol of purity, because Mary miraculously remained a perpetual virgin even while conceiving and giving birth to Christ.
Mary is painted as wearing gold, a royal color, white for purity, and blue, the color most associated with her in the West. In the early days of Christian art (and still today in the East) red symbolized earth and blue symbolized Heaven. Because Christ was both divine and human, in art, He wore blue over red, while the entirely human Mary wore red over blue. But blue was also the color of royalty, and it was that symbology that endured, so that gradually the red was dropped and blue became the color of Mary, Queen of Heaven. Israel’s kings traditionally had their mothers, not their wives, as queens, and just so Mary is queen because her Son is King of the Universe.
Finally, notice that Mary’s hands are clasped and her head bowed in an attitude of prayer. Mary never forgot that she was only important through the merits of Christ, and she has always and only wanted to bring every human to her Son. Let this feast of the Immaculate Conception be a reminder to us all not only to ask for Mary’s intercession, but above all to make Christ the center of our lives, just as she did.
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