When we talk about the dogma of the Immaculate Conception — a trend topic, as you can imagine — we should stop, breath and ask ourselves: “wait, whose immaculate conception?”. Because it’s not what you think. #immaculateconception
The feast of the Immaculate Conception is one of the most misunderstood holidays in the Italian calendar. Taking place each year on December 8th, it is a Marian festival, but NOT the one you were imagining. We’re so familiar with the Christmas story and great Italian art depicting the Angel Gabriel explaining to Mary that she has mysteriously conceived that it’s easy to assume December 8th is the day when the Virgin was essentially “blessed” by the Holy Spirit. But it’s not about that at all, as one can very well realize during any tour of the Vatican Museums.
The Immaculate Conception, in reality, refers to Mary herself. Back in 1854, Pius IX proclaimed the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, essentially claiming that Mary — like Jesus — had been born free of original sin, elevating her status in the Church and ratifying the Marian worship which has always distinguished Catholicism: It was Mary, not Jesus, that was “immaculately” conceived. So Jesus was conceived in the “normal” way? No, there is a dedicated dogma for it, called Dogma of the Virgin Birth of Jesus, which must, in turn, be distinguished from another dogma, whose title now I cannot recollect, stating that the Virgin Mary remained virgin even after Jesus was born. Yes, despite the fact that the Gospels talk about some brothers and sister of Jesus. Theologians hold they were actually Jesus’ cousins. But, hey, how the hell do they know? But let’s go back to the Immaculate Conception.
Today, a beautiful illustration of this moment in history, the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, can be viewed in the Vatican Museums, where a great series of paintings by Francesco Podesti illustrates the Pope’s crucial moment and a collection of related biblical scenes. Commissioned by Pius IX himself in the wake of the Proclamation, the cycle was destined for the large hall adjacent to the rooms of Raphael in the Borgia Tower. Podesti, an artist from the coastal town of Ancona (1800-1895) worked on the paintings from 1856 to 1865. The design begins with the vaulted ceiling which displays allegorical scenes alluding to the Virgin’s virtues; Noah’s family saved in the Ark; Esther and Ahasuerus; Judith and Holofernes; Joel killing Sisara; and personifications of Faith and Doctrine. The narration continues on the north wall with homage of the Continents to the Church Enthroned. The next scene, on the west wall, is ‘The Meeting of Theologians to Discuss the Dogma’, in which Podesti excels in the skill of portraiture. Finally, on the south wall, ‘The Proclamation of the Dogma’ depicts the crucial scene when the Pope proclaims the Dogma.
The influence of Raphael is clear in Podesti’s work, as the Trinity, the Virgin and a procession of Fathers of the Church, Prophets, Apostles and other Old and New Testament figures populate the celestial sphere. The cycle concludes on the east wall with a painting of ‘the Crowning of the Image of Mary’, illustrating a ceremony in the Basilica of St. Peter’s which followed the Proclamation. Podesti was present at this memorable event and includes himself into the crowd, while painting the scene into history for the generations to come. Visitors of the Vatican Museums today can still witness this extraordinary moment in time, and consider how great art is all but immaculately conceived.