Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Immaculate Conception

Jean Bellegambe (c. 1470 - c. 1534)
L`Immaculée Conception (part of Triptych)
Exterior doors: St Anne and St Joachim
In Grisaille with touch of red in the faces
Interior: The Church (Pope Sixtus IV and his advisers and the donors of the work (the family of Jean Poltier) in prayer
Oil on wood
333 x 113cm
Musée de la Chartreuse, Douai

Jean Bellegambe (c. 1470 - c. 1534)
St Anne and the Conception of Mary
Oil on wood
36 x 26 cm
Musée de la Chartreuse, Douai

Jean Bourdichon c 1457 - 1521
The Meeting of St Anne and St Joachim at the Golden Gate in Jerusalem From The Breviary of King René II of Lorraine
c. 1520
Illuminated manuscript: miniature
Musée du Petit-Palais, Paris

The Immaculate Conception, the conception of Mary free from original sin was not easily depicted in medieval art.

By God's own choice, Mary was filled with deifying grace from the moment of her conception so she might be fittingly honoured as the all-holy Mother of the Incarnate Word.

The above two images are examples where the focus is put on St Anne and her pregnancy as a means to establish that Mary was a special person selected by God from the moment of her conception.

No doubt there were at one time many examples of such iconography. However the iconoclasm at The Reformation singled out images of the Virgin for special destruction

One other problem was that although the balance and weight of opinion was in favour of the Doctrine, there appeared to be a substantial body of opinion against the Doctrine (St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), St. Albert the Great (1206-1280) and St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1275-1274))

But St Thomas Aquinas held ""If the soul of the Blessed Virgin had never incurred the stain of original sin, it would be derogatory to the dignity of Christ, by reason of His being the universal Saviour of all.'

Therefore, he concluded that, "the Blessed Virgin did indeed contract original sin, but was cleansed therefrom before her birth from the womb."

In reply to certain Dominican preachers who preached that the Doctrine was a heresy, the Franciscan Pope Sixtus IV thundered in 1476:

"... We, therefore, wishing to oppose such irresponsible boldness ... by Our own initiative and not by the insistence of anyone's request presented to Us on this subject, but only through our deliberation and certain knowledge, condemn and reprove those types of assertions of preachers and any others who have dared to assert that those who believe and hold that the same Mother of God was, in her conception, preserved from the stain of original sin are, because of this, polluted by the stain of heresy or sin mortally; or if [they] celebrate this office of [Mary's] conception or listen to such sermons they incur the guilt of some sin; and [likewise] in virtue of Apostolic authority, on the basis of these present [writings], [We condemn such affinnations] as false and erroneous and completely contrary to the truth as well as the afore said books that have been published with this content; ...

and We place a similar penalty and censure on those who have dared to assert that people who hold the contrary opinion - namely that the Virgin Mary was conceived with original sin - incur the crime of heresy or mortal sin, since the matter has not yet been decided by the Roman Church and the Apostolic See"

Denzinger Hunennann, 1426; the date of the constitution is Feb. 27, 1477, but given as 1476 in the curial record

It was this decree by Sixtus IV which allowed the Church to commence the artistic depiction of The Immaculate Conception

The importance of the pronouncement is seen by the fact that in the Triptych by Jean Bellegambe, Pope Sixtus IV is depicted surrounded by his cardinals and advisers making the pronouncement

The earliest extant depiction of the Immaculate Conception after the pronouncement by Sixtus IV is an engraving for the Heures à l’usage du diocèse d’Angers by Simon Vostre made in 1510

In 1661, Pope Alexander VII published his brief Sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum manifesting his support for the Immaculate Conception. He said of the Feast and the Doctrine:

"We, considering that the holy Roman Church solemnly celebrates the feast of the conception of the spotless and ever-virgin Mary and for a long while has established for this a special and proper Office ... and wishing to promote ... this praiseworthy piety and devotion and the feast and the cult ... we renew ... [the decrees] promulgated on behalf of the judgment which affirms that the soul of the blessed Virgin Mary in its creation and its infusion into the body was blessed by the grace of the Holy Spirit and preserved from original sin."