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Immaculate Conception

Immaculate Conception of Mary
Inmaculada Concepción (Tiepolo).jpg
Venerated inCatholic Church
(East and West)
Major shrineBasilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
FeastDecember 8 (Roman Rite)
December 9 (Byzantine Rite)

The Immaculate Conception is a doctrine of the Roman Catholic church that states that the Virgin Mary was free of original sin from the moment of her conception. First debated by medieval theologians, it proved so controversial that it did not become part of official Catholic teaching until 1854, when Pius IX gave it the status of dogma in the papal bull Ineffabilis Deus. Protestants rejected Ineffabilis Deus as an exercise in papal power and the doctrine itself as without foundation in Scripture, and although Eastern Orthodoxy reveres Mary in its liturgy, Patriarch Anthimus VII of Constantinople characterized the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and papal infallibility as "Roman novelties". The iconography of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception shows her standing, with arms outstretched or hands clasped in prayer, and her feast day is 8 December.


The Immaculate Conception of Mary is one of the four Marian dogmas of the Catholic Church, meaning that it is held to be a divinely revealed truth whose denial is heresy. Defined by Pope Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus, 1854, it states that Mary, through God's grace, was conceived free from the stain of original sin through her role as the Mother of God:

We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.

While the Immaculate Conception asserts Mary's freedom from original sin, the Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563, had previously affirmed her freedom from personal sin.


Anne, mother of Mary, and original sin

Anne, appears as the mother of Mary, in the late 2nd-century Gospel of James. Anne and her husband, Saint Joachim, are infertile, but God hears their prayers and Mary is conceived, the conception occurs without sexual intercourse between Anne and Joachim, but the story does not advance the idea of an immaculate conception.

The Gospel of James emphasized Mary's sacred purity, but it did not teach that she was conceived without original sin.

Medieval formulation

Altar of the Immaculata by Joseph Lusenberg, 1876. Saint Antony's Church, Urtijëi, Italy.

By the 4th century it was generally accepted that Mary was free of personal sin, but original sin raised the question of whether she was also free of the sin passed down from Adam. The question became acute when the feast of her conception began to be celebrated in England in the 11th century, for Christians could not celebrate the birthdays of those born in sin, and popularity of the feast of Mary's conception brought forth the objection that as sexual intercourse is sinful, to celebrate Mary's conception was to celebrate a sinful event. (The feast of Mary's conception originated in the Eastern Church in the 7th century, reached England in the 11th, and from there spread to Europe, where it was given official approval in 1477 and extended to the whole Church in 1693; the word "immaculate" was added in 1854).

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception caused a virtual civil war between Franciscans and Dominicans during the middle ages. Franciscans in its favour and Dominicans against it. The English ecclesiastic and scholar Eadmer (c.1060-c.1126) reasoned that it was possible that Mary was conceived without original sin in view of God's omnipotence, and that it was also appropriate in view of her role as Mother of God: Potuit, decuit, fecit, "it was possible, it was fitting, therefore it was done." Others, including Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), objected that if Mary were free of original sin at her conception then she would have no need of redemption, making Christ superfluous; they were answered by Duns Scotus (1264-1308), who argued that her preservation from original sin was a redemption more perfect than that granted through Christ. The Council of Basel (1431) declared Mary's Immaculate Conception a "pious opinion" consistent with faith and Scripture; the Council of Trent, held in several sessions in the early 1500s, made no explicit declaration on the subject but exempted her from the universality of original sin; and by 1571 the Pope's Breviary (prayerbook) set out an elaborate celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on 8 December.

Popular devotion and Ineffabilis Deus

The eventual creation of the dogma was due more to popular devotion than scholarship. The Immaculate Conception became a popular subject in literature and art, and some devotees went so far as to hold that Anne had conceived Mary by kissing her husband Joachim, and that Anne's father and grandmother had likewise been conceived without sexual intercourse, although St Bridget of Sweden (c.1303-1373) told how Mary herself had revealed to her that Anne and Joachim conceived their daughter through a sexual union which was sinless because free of sexual desire.

In the 16th and especially the 17th centuries there was a proliferation of Immaculatist devotion in Spain, leading the Habsburg monarchs to demand that the papacy elevate the belief to the status of dogma. In France in 1830 Catherine Labouré (May 2, 1806 – December 31, 1876) saw a vision of Mary as the Immaculate Conception standing on a globe while a voice commanded her to have a medal made in imitation of what she saw, and her vision marked the beginning of a great 19th-century Marian revival. In 1849 Pope Pius IX asked the Bishops of the Church for their views on whether the doctrine should be defined as dogma; ninety percent of those who responded were supportive, and in 1854 the Immaculate Conception dogma was proclaimed with the bull Ineffabilis Deus. Although the Archbishop of Paris, Marie-Dominique-Auguste Sibour, warned that the Immaculate Conception "could be proved neither from the Scriptures nor from tradition" he was present at the promulgation of the decree and shortly afterwards solemnly published it in his own diocese.

Ineffabilis Deus found the Immaculate Conception in the Ark of Salvation (Noah's Ark), Jacob's Ladder, the Burning Bush at Sinai, the Enclosed Garden from the Song of Songs, and many more passages. From this wealth of support the pope's advisors singled out Genesis 3:15: "The most glorious Virgin ... was foretold by God when he said to the serpent: 'I will put enmity between you and the woman,'" a prophecy which reached fulfilment in the figure of the Woman in the Revelation of John, crowned with stars and trampling the Dragon underfoot. Luke 1:28, and specifically the phrase "full of grace" by which Gabriel greeted Mary, was another reference to her immaculate conception: "she was never subject to the curse and was, together with her Son, the only partaker of perpetual benediction."

Ineffabilis Deus was one of the pivotal events of the papacy of Pius, pope from 16 June 1846 to his death on 7 February 1878. Up until this point it had been understood that dogma had to be based in Scripture and accepted by tradition, but Mary's immaculate conception is not stated in the New Testament and cannot be deduced from it, Ineffabilis Deus therefore was a novelty, being based instead on the declaration of a special commission to the effect that neither Scripture nor tradition were necessary to define dogma, but only the authority of the Church expressed in the Pope. The comission Pius IX had called together declared that neither scriptural proof nor a broad and ancient stream of tradition was required to promulgate Mary's Immaculate Conception. It insisted, further, that the authority of the church today is quite sufficient to define this dogma. Four years later, Mary appeared to the young Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes in southern France, to announce that she was the Immaculate Conception.

Feast and patronages

The procession of the Quadrittu of the Immaculate Conception taken on December 7 in Saponara, Sicily

The feast day of the Immaculate Conception is December 8. Its celebration seems to have begun in the Eastern church in the 7th century and may have spread to Ireland by the 8th, although the earliest well-attested record in the Western church is from England early in the 11th. It was suppressed there after the Norman Conquest (1066), and the first thorough exposition of the doctrine was a response to this suppression. It continued to spread despite strong theological objections (in 1125 St Bernard of Clairvaux wrote to Lyons Cathedral to express his surprise and concern that it had recently begun to be observed there), but in 1477 Sixtus IV, a Franciscan, placed it on the Roman calendar (i.e., list of Church festivals and observances). Pius V suppressed the word "immaculate", but following the promulgation of Ineffabilis Deus it was restored with the typically Franciscan phrase "immaculate conception" and given a formulary for the Mass, drawn largely from one composed for Sixtus IV, beginning "O God who by the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin...".

By pontifical decree a number of countries are considered to be under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception. These include Argentina, Brazil, Korea, Nicaragua, Paraguay, the Philippines, Spain (including the old kingdoms and the present state), the United States and Uruguay. By royal decree under the House of Bragança, she is the principal Patroness of Portugal.[citation needed]

Prayers and hymns

The Roman Missal and the Roman Rite Liturgy of the Hours naturally includes references to Mary's immaculate conception in the feast of the Immaculate Conception. An example is the antiphon that begins: "Tota pulchra es, Maria, et macula originalis non est in te" ("You are all beautiful, Mary, and the original stain [of sin] is not in you." It continues: "Your clothing is white as snow, and your face is like the sun. You are all beautiful, Mary, and the original stain [of sin] is not in you. You are the glory of Jerusalem, you are the joy of Israel, you give honour to our people. You are all beautiful, Mary.") On the basis of the original Gregorian chant music, polyphonic settings have been composed by Anton Bruckner, Pablo Casals, Maurice Duruflé, Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki, Ola Gjeilo, José Maurício Nunes Garcia, and Nikolaus Schapfl [de].

Other prayers honouring Mary's immaculate conception are in use outside the formal liturgy. The Immaculata prayer, composed by Saint Maximillian Kolbe, is a prayer of entrustment to Mary as the Immaculata. A novena of prayers, with a specific prayer for each of the nine days has been composed under the title of the Immaculate Conception Novena.

Ave Maris Stella is the vesper hymn of the feast of the Immaculate Conception. The hymn Immaculate Mary, addressed to Mary as the Immaculately Conceived One, is closely associated with Lourdes.

Artistic representation

Giotto, Meeting at the Golden Gate, 1304–1306

The Immaculate Conception became a popular subject in literature, but its abstract nature meant it was late in appearing as a subject in art. During the Medieval period it was depicted as "Joachim and Anne Meeting at the Golden Gate", meaning Mary's conception through the chaste kiss of her parents at the Golden Gate in Jerusalem; the 14th and 15th centuries were the heyday for this scene, after which it was gradually replaced by more allegorical depictions featuring an adult Mary. The 1476 extension of the feast of the Immaculate Conception to the entire Latin Church reduced the likelihood of controversy for the artist or patron in depicting an image, so that emblems depicting The Immaculate Conception began to appear. Many artists in the 15th century faced the problem of how to depict an abstract idea such as the Immaculate Conception, and the problem was not fully solved for 150 years. The Italian Renaissance artist Piero di Cosimo was among those artists who tried new solutions, but none of these became generally adopted so that the subject matter would be immediately recognisable to the faithful.[citation needed]

The definitive iconography for the depiction of "Our Lady" seems to have been finally established by the painter and theorist Francisco Pacheco in his "El arte de la pintura" of 1649: a beautiful young girl of 12 or 13, wearing a white tunic and blue mantle, rays of light emanating from her head ringed by twelve stars and crowned by an imperial crown, the sun behind her and the moon beneath her feet. Pacheco's iconography influenced other Spanish artists or artists active in Spain such as El Greco, Bartolomé Murillo, Diego Velázquez, and Francisco Zurbarán, who each produced a number of artistic masterpieces based on the use of these same symbols. The popularity of this particular representation of The Immaculate Conception spread across the rest of Europe, and has since remained the best known artistic depiction of the concept: in a heavenly realm, moments after her creation, the spirit of Mary (in the form of a young woman) looks up in awe at (or bows her head to) God. The moon is under her feet and a halo of twelve stars surround her head, possibly a reference to "a woman clothed with the sun" from Revelation 12:1–2. Additional imagery may include clouds, a golden light, and putti. In some paintings the putti are holding lilies and roses, flowers often associated with Mary.

Other churches


Eastern Orthodoxy never accepted Augustine's specific ideas on original sin, and in consequence did not become involved in the later developments that took place in the Roman Catholic Church, including the Immaculate Conception. When in 1894 Pope Leo XIII addressed the Eastern church in his encyclical Praeclara gratulationis, Ecumenical Patriarch Anthimos in 1895 replied with an encyclical approved by the Constantinopolitan Synod in which he stigmatised the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and papal infallibility as "Roman novelties" and called on the Roman church to return to the faith of the early centuries. Eastern Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware comments that "the Latin dogma seems to us not so much erroneous as superfluous."

The Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo tradition affirms the Immaculate Conception. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church celebrates the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on Nehasie 7 (August 13). The 96th chapter of the Kebra Nagast states: “He cleansed Eve's body and sanctified it and made for it a dwelling in her for Adam’s salvation. She [i.e., Mary] was born without blemish, for He made her pure, without pollution, and she redeemed his debt without carnal union and embrace...Through the transgression of Eve we died and were buried, and by the purity of Mary we receive honour, and are exalted to the heights.”

Old Catholics

In the mid-19th century, some Catholics who were unable to accept the doctrine of papal infallibility left the Roman Church and formed the Old Catholic Church; their movement rejects the Immaculate Conception.


Protestants overwhelmingly condemned the promulgation of Ineffabilis Deus as an exercise in papal power, and the doctrine itself as without foundation in Scripture, for it denied that all had sinned and rested on a translation of Luke 1:28 (the "full of grace" passage) that the original Greek did not support. Protestants therefore teach that Mary was a sinner saved through grace like all believers. The ecumenical Lutheran-Catholic Statement on Saints, Mary, issued in 1990 after seven years of study and discussion, conceded that Lutherans and Catholics remained separated "by differing views on matters such as the invocation of saints, the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary;"

the final report of the Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), created in 1969 to further ecumenical progress between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, similarly recorded the disagreement of the Anglicans with the doctrine, although Anglo-Catholics may hold the Immaculate Conception as an optional pious belief.

See also

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