Feasts of Our Lady: The Immaculate Conception
“At length, on the distant horizon, rises, with a soft and radiant light, the aurora of the Sun which has been so long desired.” This poetic line of Dom Guéranger refers to the dawn of our salvation, the appearance of the immaculate ark which is to enshrine the Most High, she who was preserved from all stain, the Immaculata. Among the most sublime feasts of the Blessed Virgin, we consider that of the Immaculate Conception on the eighth day of December.
In the East
The first origins of the feast are in the Palestinian monasteries in the eighth century, with the date of the feast on December 8 or 9, closely tied to the Nativity of Our Lady on September 8. In the ninth century the feast is found on calendars in the southern Italian peninsula, which was under Byzantine influence at the time. It was called the Conception of St. Anne, not so much in reference to the exemption of Our Lady from Original Sin, but rather in commemoration of her miraculous conception. According to an apocryphal source, for over twenty years Sts. Joachim and Anne had been sterile and had hoped for offspring, and after the annunciation of an angel Our Lady was miraculously conceived, similarly to the conception of Christ. At the same time, the Greeks also celebrated the advent of Our Lady herself, independently from the apocryphal account of her conception. Around 740 A.D. Bishop John of Eubea wrote, “In this day we celebrate the Conception of Mary, the holy Mother of God, whom Christ, the Son of God, Himself edified with the blessing of the Father and the cooperation of the life-giving Holy Ghost.”
In the West
Some scholars attribute the introduction of the feast in the West to the Irish. Various local martyrologies from that time, such as that of Tallaght, include it under the express title Conceptio Mariae, but there is a misidentification of the feast’s date (May 3) which leads many to conclude that there was an equivocation with the feast of St. Marianus on the same date. In fact, the feast began to be celebrated in England only in the eleventh century, and on December 8. It is included on that date on the calendars of Winchester, Old Minster, New Minster, and Exeter.
Within thirty years after the compilation of these texts, however, came the Norman Conquest of 1066. For whatever reason, the Normans suppressed the feast. It was not long, however before the feast was reintroduced. Elsin, Abbot of Ramsay in the late eleventh century, was saved miraculously from a shipwreck by Our Lady, and due to his promise and her command, he began anew to promote the feast of her Conception which took root in several important dioceses. In the early twelfth century, the English historian Eadmer (+1126) wrote a short defense of the feast, declaring the meaning was the exaltation of Mary, who in the first moment of her creation was exempt from any stain of corruption or sin (corruptionis et peccati ruga discrete). Likewise around AD 1120 Westminster Abbey’s Osbert of Clare wrote, “We believe that it is not impossible to God to have sanctified the Blessed Virgin Mary in her conception from the prevarication of Adam….Therefore the Most High sanctified his tabernacle by His command of creation and conception in her mother’s womb.”
Notwithstanding the previous suppression of the feast in England at the time of William the Conqueror, Our Lady used the very same Normans as her instrument for spreading this feast on the European continent. The feast is found in records of the Archdiocese of Rouen and in most of Normandy in the early twelfth century, and throughout the medieval era, the feast was popularly called the “Feast of the Normans.” Throughout the rest of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the feast spread to Lyon and the rest of France, Belgium and Germany. In the northern half of the Italian peninsula the feast was adopted first at Vercelli and Cremona, and spread further due to a decision at the General Chapter of the Franciscans in 1263 to observe the feast throughout the Order.
The history of the feast in the West involves the theological dispute between the Franciscans and the Dominicans. One part of the controversy involved the question of whether Our Lady was immaculate at her conception, or whether she was sanctified in the womb after animation. The Dominican argument is the latter, as articulated in the Summa (III, 27). On the contrary, the Franciscans, Carmelites, Augustinians, Cistercians, Benedictines and the secular clergy held to the former tenet. The Franciscan argument was advocated most notably by John Duns Scotus (+1308), adhering to the principle potuit, decuit, ergo fecit, meaning that the most excellent privilege that could be given to Our Lady, and which is in the power of God to give, was therefore given by Him: that she was preserved from Original Sin from the first moment of her conception. From that point in time, it can be said that above all others the Franciscans have carried the torch for the Immaculata.
Approval by Rome
Rome took more time to adopt the feast, and it was not until around 1330 that it began to be celebrated by the Papal Court, and this due to French influence. The French Pope John XXII at Avignon began to celebrate the feast at the Carmelite church and soon incorporated it into his own chapel with special solemnity. Opponents of the feast considered it to be a private devotion of the Pope and his court, without any official approbation for the Church at large. It was not until the fifteenth century when the official decrees would be issued by Pope Sixtus IV. The first was Prae excelsa in 1476, which not only approved the feast, but gave it its own proper office and Mass, and enriched it with indulgences. The second was Grave nimis in 1483, which dealt with the theological controversies of the time and dealt a severe rebuke to the Dominican Vincent Bandelis whose opposition to the feast was overly harsh. With these two decrees, even if not including a dogmatic definition, the official approval of the Holy See was decisive and unquestionable. Roma locuta est, causa finita est, or so it seemed.
The Dominicans officially accepted the feast, but insisted on calling it the Sanctification of the Blessed Virgin Mary as opposed to her preservation from sin at conception. Pope Gregory XV in 1622, following upon the actions of his predecessor Paul V, issued a decree abolishing this name and imposing silence upon the Dominicans on this topic in writings and in sermons, even if these be private. The controversy nevertheless continued to brew behind the scenes until Alexander VII issued the Apostolic Constitution Sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum on December 8, 1661. In this constitution, the pontiff defined the terms of the argument, declaring that the object of the feast was specifically Our Lady’s preservation from Original Sin at the moment of her conception: “The devotion to the most Blessed Virgin Mary is indeed of long standing among the faithful of Christ who believe that her soul, from the first instant of its creation and infusion into her body, was preserved immune by a special grace and privilege of God from the stain of original sin, in view of the merits of her Son, Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of our human race, and who, in this sense, esteem and solemnly celebrate the festivity of her conception[.] We renew the Constitutions and decrees published by Roman Pontiffs in favor of the opinion that asserts that the soul of the Blessed Virgin Mary at its creation, and at its infusion into her body, was blessed by the grace of the Holy Ghost and was preserved from original sin” (DZ 1100). The decree was successful and settled the issue definitively. Innocent XII (+1700) elevated the feast to II class and Leo XIII (+1903) elevated it to I class (viz., double second class and double first class), and these popes furnished the feast with an octave and a vigil, although in the United States, the national calendar included a vigil for the feast since 1847.
The final jewel in the crown of the Immaculata was placed by Bl. Pius IX, when he made the infallible dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception with the Bull Ineffabilis Deus on December 8, 1854. The bull was chiefly drafted by Msgr. Luca Pacifici, secretary of Briefs to Princes, and in beautiful terms it extolls the excellence of the Blessed Virgin Mary, tam venerabilis mater, then provides the material for the Roman Pontiff to define the dogma as follows: “To the honor of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, to the glory and adornment of the Virgin Mother of God, to the exaltation of the Catholic Faith and the increase of the Christian religion, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul, and by Our own, We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine, which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary at the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, in virtue of the merits of Christ Jesus, the Savior of the human race, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and on this account must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful” (DZ 1641). Pope Pius IX at that time also elevated the feast to a holy day of obligation.
The Immaculate Conception in Art
There is a particular history of the representation of this dogma in iconography. Such a mystery as the Immaculate Conception could be represented only by symbols. The representation over the centuries has been categorized as initially historic, then symbolic, and lastly contemplative.
The representation used throughout the Middle Ages and up until the seventeenth century, which we can call historic, is a representation of the historical event of Our Lady’s conception: it showed the chaste embrace of Ss. Joachim and Anne meeting at the Golden Gate of Jerusalem. Because this representation featured the Blessed Virgin’s parents so prominently and thus hearkened to the dubious apocryphal description of her conception, it was finally condemned by Pope Innocent XI in 1677.
A symbolic representation began to come into prominence during the sixteenth century. It showed the Blessed Virgin Mary with joined hands, surrounded by several symbols related to her various privileges, mainly symbols from the Old Testament. Above her head, the Father is seen looking down upon her. A related image popular among the Franciscan artists showed Our Lady in the same position with Fathers and Doctors of the Church at her feet holding scrolls with texts referring to the Immaculate Conception.
In the 17th Century the well-known contemplative image began to surface and slowly gained popularity such that it took complete precedence over any previous representation. Pius IX gave it specific approval during his reign. It is the representation given to St. John the Apostle on Patmos and which is recorded in the Apocalypse (12:1), a woman clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet. A famous example is the Immaculate Conception by the Sevillian master Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (+1682), which is preserved in the Prado. In later depictions, artists added the crown of twelve stars, as indicated in the same verse of the Apocalypse, and the serpent whose head is being crushed by Our Lady as prophesied in Genesis 3:15; the serpent is often shown with the apple in his mouth, representing the forbidden fruit sinfully eaten by Adam and Eve.
The feast of the Immaculate Conception has a complicated background, arising in Palestine, spreading through the Byzantine Empire, taking root in the British Isles, then spreading from Normandy throughout France and across the Alps, eventually to be embraced by Rome. At the same time, the best theologians of history debated the topic until the definitive seal was put on it by the holder of the Keys of Kingdom, and it was solemnly enshrined among the dogmas of Holy Mother Church. The most touching confirmation of the dogma, however, is much less complex. It is indeed very simple, modest, and pure. In 1858 at the Grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes, the Blessed Mother of God herself appeared to a humble peasant girl, St. Bernadette Soubirous, and issued the confirmation of heaven: I am the Immaculate Conception.