The Immaculate Conception, one of the titles given to Mary, Mother of God says that Mary was immaculately conceived and was never subject to the same state of original sin that are all other human beings. Other members of the human race are cleansed from original sin after birth. In Mary, God’s grace prevented original sin at the outset of her birth.
The dogma was promulgated in the Ineffabilis Deus (Ineffable God) by Pope Pius IX in 1854, it states (with bold emphasis added), “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 Savior 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.”
The Immaculate Conception of Mary in the womb of her mother is not to be confused with her purity in relation to the virgin birth of Jesus; and it is one of the four divinely revealed truths about Mary (the four Marian dogmas of the Catholic Church are: Mother of God, Perpetual Virginity, Immaculate Conception and Assumption).
The idea of the Immaculate Conception existed as early as the seventh century and continued in various forms until it’s official promulgation in 1854; however, not all supported the idea and even great Marian devotees such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Thomas Aquinas could not see theological justification for this teaching. Although both saints considered Mary the greatest and holiest of the saints, they had difficulty in seeing Mary sinless as a human being – either at her conception or throughout her life. In fact, a long term “feud” related to the doctrine developed between the Dominicans and the Franciscans (supporters); and it was two Franciscans (William of Ware and Blessed John Duns Scotus) who were instrumental in developing the theology which supported the doctrine (summarized from francisanmedia.org).
Although there are no direct scriptural references to the Immaculate Conception, there were several references quoted in the Ineffabilis Deus that were relied upon in the Pope Pius IX proclamation; but in the end, it was popular support which led the papacy to elevate the status of the doctrine. A Marian revival started in the 1800’s with two Marian apparitions near the date of the decision. The most proximate apparition, before the promulgation, occurred in 1830, when the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St. Catherine Labouré, revealing to her an image of what is referred to as the “Miraculous Medal.” The medal was forged as a remembrance of this apparition, and contains the words, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” This popular sacramental affirms the sinlessness of Mary and her Immaculate Conception. A second apparition occurred after, in 1858 at Lourdes, France where Mary appeared in a series of apparitions to the young French peasant girl Saint Bernadette Soubirous. In the apparitions, Mary identified herself by stating, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Once more, as with St. Catherine Labouré, Mary’s sinlessness was verified by an apparition.
The portrayal of the Immaculate Conception in art was consolidated in the 14th and 15th centuries when, according to the painter and theorist Francisco Pacheco in his book El arte de la pintura of 1649, these features became consistent: 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 artists active in Spain such as Bartolome Murillo, Diego Velazquez, Francisco de Zurbaran, and El Greco who each produced a number of works based on the use of these symbols. (See the montage of paintings above in chronological order by Velazquez, Zurbaran and Murillo.) 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. (summarized from Modern Extraterrestrial Portraiture by John F. Moffit)
The title of Our Lady as the Immaculate Conception is very popular across the world and she is the patroness of Brazil and the United States, among other countries. The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated on December 8th.
Gribble, Father Richard – https://simplycatholic.com/immaculate-conception/
Franciscan Media – https://www.franciscanmedia.org/saint-of-the-day/immaculate-conception-of-the-blessed-virgin-mary
Moffitt, John F. Modern Extraterrestrial Portraiture, in Caron, Richard; Godwin, Joscelyn; Hanegraaff, Wouter J.; Vieillard-Baron, Jean-Louis (eds.), Esotérisme, gnoses & imaginaire symbolique: mélanges offerts à Antoine Faivre, Peeters Publishers, 2001.
International Marian Research Institute – https://udayton.edu/imri/mary/i/immaculate-conception-ineffabilis-deus.php
Photographs of paintings from Wikimedia Commons – considered to be Public Domain
“The Immaculate Conception” by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, circa 1680. Currently located in the Cleveland Museum of Art.
“The Immaculate Conception” by Diego Velazquez, 1618. Currently located in the National Gallery in London.
“The Immaculate Conception” by Francisco de Zurbaran, 1661. Currently located in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.