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Monday, April 23, 2007

Carlo Crivelli: The Immaculate Conception (1492)


CRIVELLI, Carlo (about 1430/5 - about 1494)
The Immaculate Conception 1492
Egg tempera on wood
194.3 x 93.3 cm.
The National Gallery, London


Before the Dogma of The Immaculate Conception was defined by Blessed Pope Pius IX in 1854, the Dogma had been held widely and extensively for many centuries before.

The Conception of Mary was celebrated in England from the ninth century. Other churches in the West celebrated the doctrine from this time too. It took a long time for this doctrine to develop. The Franciscan order was especially assiduous in the development and promulgation of the Doctrine.

Pope Sixtus IV gave his approval to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1475.

For centuries, artists had already been successful in communicating the idea of the Immaculacy of the Virgin, regardless of the abstract qualities of the doctrine.

The earliest known dated altarpiece depiction of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception may be that of Carlo Crivelli in 1492. This is the claim of The National Gallery in London. Originally made for the Franciscan church of San Francesco, Pergola, central Italy, it is now in The National Gallery who acquired it in 1874.

The emphasis is on the words "known", "dated", "altarpiece" and "may".

At the top of the panel, two angels crown the Virgin at the command of God the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Inscribed on the scroll held by the two angels is:

"VT. INMENTE. DEI. ABINITIO. CONCEPTA. FVI. ITA. ET. FACTA. SVM."
(As from the beginning I was conceived in the mind of God, so have I in like manner been conceived in the flesh.)

The inscription recalls various Biblical sources including Proverbs 8:22-35:

There, Hochmah is a feminine figure at God's side, before God's eyes, in creating the universe. There she says of herself:

"The Lord made me his own in the beginning of his ways, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, before the earth existed. When he prepared the heavens, I was there... when he established the clouds above; when he appointed the foundations of the earth; I was by him, I was daily his delight, playing always before him."


A standard format and symbolism developed for such pictures. The symbols derive from the Bible, including the Book of Revelation and The Song of Songs.

Here, the Virgin's purity is symbolised by a lily in a pure crystal glass.
"As a lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters." (Song of Songs 2:2)

But the important quotation from Song of Songs was and is:
"Thou art all fair, my love; and there is no spot in thee." (Song of Songs 4:7) ("Tota pulchra es amica mea et macula non est in te" )

Other lines from the Song of Songs which give rise to imagery relating to the Immaculate Conception are:

"Thy neck is like the tower of David builded with turrets, whereon there hang a thousand shields, all the armour of the mighty men." (Song of Songs 4:4)

"A garden shut up is my sister, my bride; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed."
(Song of Songs 4:12)

"Thou art a fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and flowing streams from Lebanon." (Song of Songs 4:15)


Other common contemporary symbols referring to The Immaculate Conception were:

The transparent glass as a symbol of Mary's virginity.

Fruit can be a sign of fertility. Christ is referred to as the fruit of Mary's womb.

The white lily is Mary's special flower, symbolising purity.

Snails were (erroneously) thought to reproduce asexually, referring to the Immaculate Conception.