Immaculate Conception

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Immaculate Conception of Mary
Inmaculada Concepcion (Tiepolo).jpg
Venerated in Catholic Church
(East and West)
Major shrine Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Feast December 8 (Roman Rite)
December 9 (Byzantine Rite)
Attributes Crescent Moon
Halo of Twelve Stars
Blue Robe
Serpent Underfoot
Assumption into Heaven

The Immaculate Conception [Notes 1] is a dogma of the Catholic Church which states that the Virgin Mary was free of original sin from the moment of her conception. [1] [Notes 2] It proved highly controversial in the Middle Ages, but was revived in the 19th century and was adopted as Church dogma when Pope Pius IX promulgated Ineffabilis Deus in 1854; [2] [3] this had the overwhelming support of the Church's hierarchy, although a few, including the Archbishop of Paris, warned that the Immaculate Conception is not stated in the New Testament and cannot be deduced from it. [4] Protestants overwhelmingly rejected Ineffabilis Deus as an exercise in papal power and the doctrine itself as without foundation in Scripture, [5] and Eastern Orthodoxy, although it reveres Mary in its liturgy, called on the Roman church to return to the faith of the early centuries. [6] The iconography of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception shows her standing, with arms outspread or hands clasped in prayer, and her feast day is 8 December. [7]



The Immaculate Conception of Mary is one of the four Marian dogmas of the Catholic Church, meaning that it is held to be a truth divinely revealed, the denial of which is heresy. [8] 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: [9]

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. [10]

(Since the 19th century a dogma has come to bear the meaning of a divinely revealed truth proclaimed by Church teaching and hence binding for all time on the faithful; [11] while the Immaculate Conception asserts only Mary's freedom from original sin, the Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563, affirmed in addition her freedom from personal sin.) [12]


Anna, mother of Mary

The mother of Mary is not a biblical character. [13] She first appears in the late 2nd-century Protevangelium of James, which names her Anne, probably from Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel; she and her husband, Saint Joachim, are infertile, but God hears their prayers for a child, and so Mary is conceived and born, and, like Samuel, is taken to spend her childhood in the temple. [14] In the earliest texts, probably representing the original version, the conception occurs without sexual intercourse between Anne and Joachim, but the story does not advance the idea of an immaculate conception. [15]

Original sin

Original sin is the Christian doctrine that each human being is born in a state of sin inherited from the first man, Adam, who disobeyed God in eating the forbidden fruit (of knowledge of good and evil) and, in consequence, transmitted his sin and guilt by heredity to his descendants. [16] The doctrine was defined by Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD). [17] Engaged in a controversy with the monk Pelagius over the question of whether infants could sin (Pelagius said they could not and therefore would not go to hell if unbaptised), he inserted original sin and the fall from grace into the story of the Garden of Eden and Paul's Letter to the Romans. [18] Augustine identified male semen as the means by which original sin was made heritable, leaving only Jesus Christ, conceived without semen, free of the sin passed down from Adam through the sexual act. [19]

Medieval formulation

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

Mary's freedom from personal sin was affirmed in the 4th century, but Augustine's argument that original sin was transmitted through sex raised the question of whether she could also be free of the sin of Adam. [9] The English ecclesiastic and scholar Eadmer (c.1060-c.1126) reasoned that it was possible in view of God's omnipotence and appropriate in view of Mary's role as Mother of God: Potuit, decuit, fecit, "it was possible, it was fitting, therefore it was done;" [20] Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), among others, 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 reasoned that her preservation from original sin was a redemption more perfect than that granted through Christ. [21]

Nevertheless, it was not theological theory that initiated discussion of Mary's freedom from mankind's curse, but the celebration of her liturgy in the eleventh century, for the popular feast of her conception brought forth the objection that as normal human conception was sinful, to celebrate Mary's conception was to celebrate a sinful event. [22] Some held that no sin had occurred, for Anne had conceived Mary not through sex but by kissing her husband Joachim, and that Anne's father and mother had likewise been conceived, but St Bridget of Sweden (c.1303-1373) told how Mary herself had revealed to her in a vision that although Anne and Joachim conceived their daughter through sexual union, the act was sinless because free of sexual desire. [23]

In 1431 the Council of Basel 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. [24]

Ineffabilis Deus

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. [25] France also a great growth in popularity, an in 1830 Catherine Labouré (May 2, 1806-December 31, 1876) was granted 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. [26] Labouré's vision marked the beginning of a great 19th-century Marian revival. [27] At the time the church was engaged in a struggle against modernity and the promotion of its authority, [28] and 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 papal bull Ineffabilis Deus was promulgated. [2]

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. [3] Up until this point it had been understood that dogma had to be based in Scripture and accepted by tradition, [29] but Mary's immaculate conception is not stated in the New Testament and cannot be deduced from it, [4] and it had caused a virtual civil war between Franciscans and Dominicans during the middle ages. [30] 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. [29] The Pope and his curia (the special body which forms the central government of the church) accordingly waived the absence of scriptural proof or a "broad and ancient" stream of tradition and promulgated Mary's immaculate conception solely on papal infallibility, [31] itself promulgated as dogma in 1870. [32] Four years later Mary appeared to the young Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, in southern France, to announce that she was the Immaculate Conception. [33]

The Archbishop of Paris had warned Pius that the Immaculate Conception "could be proved neither from the Scriptures nor from tradition," [34] but Ineffabilis Deus found it 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. [35] From this wealth of support the pope's advisors singled out Genesis 3:15 as the basis for the Immaculate Conception: "The most glorious Virgin ... was foretold by God when he said to the serpent: 'I will put enmity between you and the woman,'" [36] a prophecy which reached fulfillment in the figure of the Woman in the Revelation of John, crowned with stars and trampling the Dragon underfoot. [37] 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." [38]

Feast and patronages

The procession of the Quadrittu of the Immaculate Conception taken on December 7 in Saponara, Sicily Quadrittu (cropped).jpg
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. [7] 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. [39] It was suppressed there after the Norman Conquest (1066), and the first thorough exposition of the doctrine was a response to this suppression. [39] It continued to spread despite strong theological objections [40] (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), [22] but in 1477 Sixtus IV, a Franciscan, placed it on the Roman calendar (i.e, list of Church festivals and observances). [41] Pius V suppressed the word "immaculate", [42] 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...". [43]

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.

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.") [44] On the basis of the original Gregorian chant music, [45] polyphonic settings have been composed by Anton Bruckner, [46] Pablo Casals, Maurice Duruflé, [47] Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki, [48] no:Ola Gjeilo, [49] José Maurício Nunes Garcia, [50] and Nikolaus Schapfl. [51]

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. [52] 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. [53]

Ave Maris Stella is the vesper hymn of the feast of the Immaculate Conception. [54] The hymn Immaculate Mary , addressed to Mary as the Immaculately Conceived One, is closely associated with Lourdes. [55]

Artistic representation

Giotto, Meeting at the Golden Gate, 1304-1306 Giotto - Scrovegni - -06- - Meeting at the Golden Gate.jpg
Giotto, Meeting at the Golden Gate, 1304–1306

The Immaculate Conception became a popular subject in literature, [56] but its abstract nature meant it was late in appearing as a subject in art. [57] 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; [58] 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. [59] 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.

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. [60] 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. [61] 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. [62]

Other churches

Eastern Orthodoxy

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. [63] [64] The Eastern Orthodox do have a conciliar teaching on the matter, however. The Synod of Jerusalem (1672) in its sixth decree teaches the existence of original sin ("hereditary sin flowed to his [Adam's] posterity; so that everyone who is born after the flesh bears this burden") but explicitly rejected the Augustinian notion of inherited guilt ("[by] this burden we do not understand [actual] sin"). [65] The decree continues in stating that "many both of the Forefathers and of the Prophets, and vast numbers of others...especially the Mother of God the Word, the ever-virgin Mary" experienced "only what the Divine Justice inflicted upon man as a punishment for the [original] transgression, such as sweats in labor, afflictions, bodily sicknesses...and lastly, bodily death." [65]

When in 1894 Pope Leo XIII addressed the Eastern church in his encyclical Praeclara gratulationis, Ecumenical Patriarch Anthimos replied with an encyclical of his own 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. [6] Some Eastern Orthodox have taken a more conciliatory view, an example being one popular ecumenist [66] Eastern Orthodox bishop commenting that "the Latin dogma seems to us not so much erroneous as superfluous." [67]

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. [32] [68]


Protestants overwhelmingly condemned the promulgation of Ineffabilis Deus as an exercise in papal power, and the doctrine itself as without foundation in Scripture, [5] 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. [69] With the exception of some Lutherans and Anglicans, most Protestants therefore teach that Mary was a sinner saved through grace like all believers. [38]


Martin Luther showed an abiding devotion to Mary, including her sinlessness and sanctity, and Lutherans hold Mary in high esteem, [70] but the Immaculate Conception does not hold the status of a dogma within Lutheranism. [71] The ecumenical Lutheran-Catholic Statement on Saints, Mary, issued in 1990 after seven years of study and discussion, affirmed "that the Catholic teaching about the saints and Mary as set forth in the documents of Vatican II does not promote idolatrous belief or practice and is not opposed to the gospel," but 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." [72]

Anglican Communion

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, recorded the disagreement of the Anglicans with the doctrine, although Anglo-Catholics may hold the Immaculate Conception as an optional pious belief. [73]

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. [32] [68]


Manuscript of Chapter 19 (Suratu Maryam) from a 9th-century Qur'an, Turkey Turkey.Konya035.jpg
Manuscript of Chapter 19 (Sūratu Maryam) from a 9th-century Qur'an, Turkey

A saying of Mohammad recorded in the 9th century by the Muslim scholar Muhammad al-Bukhari quotes the Prophet saying that Satan touches all the descendants of Adam "except Mary and her child"; medieval Christian monks later used this passage to claim that the Quran supported the Immaculate Conception, with the result that Muhammad was even depicted in altarpieces between the 16th and 18th centuries. [74] Islam, however, lacks the concept of original sin: according to the Quran Adam was immediately forgiven for his sin in Eden, which could therefore never have been passed to his descendants. [75]

See also

Immaculate Conception celebration in Guatemala


  1. The Immaculate Conception of Mary in the womb of her mother is not to be confused with her purity in the virgin birth of Jesus. See Bromiley (1995), p.272.
  2. "The Virgin Mary was preserved entirely free from original sin from the instant of her conception through a special prevenient grace, received in view of the merits of her Son in anticipation of the Redemption." See Reynolds (2012), p.330.

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