Immaculate Conception

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Immaculate Conception of Mary
Inmaculada Concepcion (Tiepolo).jpg
The Immaculate Conception
by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1767-1769, in the Museo del Prado, Spain
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 is a doctrine of the Roman Catholic church which states that the Virgin Mary was free of original sin from the moment of her conception. [1] It proved so controversial in the medieval church that it did not become part of official Catholic teaching until 1854, when Pius IX gave it the status of dogma (i.e., divinely revealed truth proclaimed by the Church and binding on the faithful) [2] in the Papal Bull Ineffabilis Deus . [3]


(The Immaculate Conception should not be confused with the virgin birth of Jesus, the conception and birth of Jesus without a human father).


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. [4] The doctrine was defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854, and states that Mary, through God's grace, was conceived free from the stain of original sin: [5]

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.

When defining the dogma in Ineffabilis Deus, Pope Pius IX explicitly affirmed that Mary, rather than being cleansed after sin, was completely prevented from contracting sin in view of her role as the mother of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race. [6] While the doctrine 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. [7]

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is not to be confused with the virgin birth of Jesus, more properly termed a virginal conception. [8]


Protevangelium of James and original sin

The mother of Mary is not mentioned in the New Testament, and it is the late 2nd century Protevangelium of James which names her Saint Anne (the author probably took this from Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel)[ according to whom? ]; in its narrative, the infertile Anne and her husband Saint Joachim are each told by angels that God has heard their prayers for a child, and so Mary is conceived and born. [9] In the earliest texts, preferred by scholars as most probably representing the original version, the conception occurs without sexual intercourse between Anne and Joachim. [10] . [10]

The Protevangelium emphasized Mary's sacred purity, but it did not teach that she was conceived without original sin, a concept that did not exist before the 4th century. [10] [11] [12] It is not found in the Book of Genesis (Judaism does not see human nature as irrevocably tainted) [13] , nor in the New Testament, [14] for the Apostle Paul regarded sin and death not as a punishment visited on mankind for Adam's fault but as the natural lot of mankind. [15] It was Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) who created what eventually became the official position of the Church by inserting original sin and the Fall into the story of the Garden of Eden and Paul's Letter to the Romans, although neither use those terms. [12] Augustine also 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. [16] This sentiment was echoed as late as 1930 by Pope Pius XI in his Casti Conubii: "The natural generation of life has become the path of death by which original sin is communicated to the children." [17]

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.

By the 4th century it was generally understood that Mary was sinless, [10] but the formulation of original sin raised the question in a new way, for Augustine had argued that all Adam's descendants were tainted. [18] The Immaculate Conception was a new doctrine in the late medieval period. [19] 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," [18] but others, including Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas, rejected it on the grounds that if Mary were free of original sin at her conception then she would have no need of redemption, making Christ superfluous; their objection was answered by Duns Scotus (1264-1308), who reasoned that her preservation from original sin was a redemption more perfect than that granted to others through Christ. [20] The Council of Basel (1431) declared Mary's Immaculate Conception a "pious opinion" consistent with faith and Scripture to which all Catholics must assent; the Council of Trent, held in several sessions in the early 1500s as the Protestant Reformation began to get under way, while it made no explicit declaration on the subject, 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 (the feast itself, and its date, had been introduced several centuries earlier). [21]

The creation of the dogma was nevertheless due more to popular devotion that scholarship. [22] Sometimes this devotion was bizarre to the point of heresy: in the 15th century it was held by some that Anne had conceived Mary by kissing her husband Joachim, and that Anne's father and grandmother mother had likewise been conceived without intercourse, so that virgin births were"breeding like rabbits" in Mary's family tree. [23] Mystic visions and revelations played a role, with St Bridget of Sweden (c.1303-1373) telling how Mary herself revealed that Anne and Joachim conceived their daughter through a sexual union which was sinless because free of sexual desire. [24] The Immaculate Conception became a popular subject in literature and art, [25] and while the post-Reformation Spanish monarchy made the doctrine central to their Catholicism, it was popular support which led the kings to demand that the Papacy elevate it to the status of dogma. [26]

Ineffabilis Deus

The promulgation of Ineffabilis Deus in 1854, by which the Immaculate Conception was established as a dogma of the Church, was one of the pivotal events of the papacy of Pius IX, pope from 16 June 1846 to his death on 7 February 1878. [27] Up until this point it had been understood that Church dogma had to be contained in Scripture, [28] but Mary's immaculate conception is not stated in the New Testament and cannot be deduced from it. [29] Ineffabilis Deus therefore was a novelty, being based instead on the declaration of a special commission called by the Pope to the effect that neither Scripture nor tradition were necessary to dogma, but only the authority of the Church expressed in the Pope alone. [28] 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 the new dogma solely on the doctrine of papal infallibility, [30] itself promulgated as dogma in 1870. [31] (Catholics unable to accept papal infallibility left the Roman Church and formed the Old Catholic Church, which rejects also the Immaculate Conception). [31] [32]


Ineffabilis Deus found the Immaculate Conception prefigured in such Old Testament stories and images as 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. [33] It noted also the eternal enmity between the Woman and the [[serpents in the Bible|Serpent] prophesied in Genesis ("I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; she will crush your head and she will bruise your heel" - Genesis 3:15: this had been a proof of the Immaculate Conception since the late 15th century, although the original Hebrew has "he" rather than "she") which reached its fulfilment in the figure of the Woman in the Revelation of John, crowned with stars as she tramples the Dragon underfoot [34] From the account of the nativity of Jesus came the angel's salutation to the mother, "Hail, full of grace," [35] indicating that "she was never subject to the curse and was, together with her Son, the only partaker of perpetual benediction."


A number of countries are considered to be under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception by pontifical decree. 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.

Feast day

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

By 750, the feast of her conception (December 8) was widely celebrated in the Byzantine East, under the name of the Conception (active) of Saint Anne. In the West it was known as the feast of the Conception (passive) of Mary, and was associated particularly with the Normans, whether these introduced it directly from the East [36] or took it from English usage. [37] The spread of the feast, by now with the adjective "Immaculate" attached to its title, met opposition on the part of some, on the grounds that sanctification was possible only after conception. [38] Critics included Saints Bernard of Clairvaux, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. Other theologians defended the expression "Immaculate Conception", pointing out that sanctification could be conferred at the first moment of conception in view of the foreseen merits of Christ, a view held especially by Franciscans. [39]

William of Ware and Blessed John Duns Scotus pointed out that Mary’s Immaculate Conception enhances Jesus’ redemptive work. [40] One of the chief proponents of the doctrine was the Hungarian Franciscan Pelbartus Ladislaus of Temesvár. [41]

On February 28, 1476, Pope Sixtus IV, authorized those dioceses that wished to introduce the feast to do so, and introduced it to his own diocese of Rome in 1477, [37] with a specially composed Mass and Office of the feast. [42] With his bull Cum praeexcelsa of February 28, 1477, in which he referred to the feast as that of the Conception of Mary, without using the word "Immaculate", he granted indulgences to those who would participate in the specially composed Mass or Office on the feast itself or during its octave, and he used the word "immaculate" of Mary, but applied instead the adjective "miraculous" to her conception. [43] [44] On September 4, 1483, referring to the feast as that of "the Conception of Immaculate Mary ever Virgin", he condemned both those who called it mortally sinful and heretical to hold that the "glorious and immaculate mother of God was conceived without the stain of original sin" and those who called it mortally sinful and heretical to hold that "the glorious Virgin Mary was conceived with original sin", since, he said, "up to this time there has been no decision made by the Roman Church and the Apostolic See." [43] This decree was reaffirmed by the Council of Trent. [43]

Pope Pius V, while including the feast in the Tridentine Calendar, removed the adjective "Immaculate" and suppressed the existing special Mass for the feast, directing that the Mass for the Nativity of Mary (with the word "Nativity" replaced by "Conception") be used instead. [45] [46] Part of that earlier Mass was revived in the Mass that Pope Pius IX ordered to be used on the feast and that is still in use. [47]

On December 6, 1708, Pope Clement XI made the feast of the Conception of Mary, at that time still with the Nativity of Mary formula for the Mass, a Holy Day of Obligation. [38] Until Pope Pius X reduced in 1911 the number of Holy Days of Obligation to 8, there were in the course of the year 36 such days, apart from Sundays. [48] Writers such as Sarah Jane Boss interpret the existence of the feast as a strong indication of the Church's traditional belief in the Immaculate Conception. [49]

Other churches

For differing reasons, belief in Mary's immaculate conception in the Catholic doctrinal form is not part of the official doctrines of the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican and other Protestant churches.

Eastern Orthodox

The Eastern 4th century church, unlike the Western branch, never accepted Augustine's ideas on original sin, and in consequence did not become involved in the later development of the doctrine of her immaculate conception. [50] Contemporary Eastern Orthodox Christians often object to the dogmatic declaration of her immaculate conception as an "over-elaboration" of the faith and because they see it as too closely connected with a particular interpretation of the doctrine of ancestral sin. [51] The Orthodox churches teach of Mary as the Achrantos, the Immaculate One, but do not teach the immaculate conception. [52]


Martin Luther, who was excommunicated in the 1520 papal bull Exsurge Domine , stated "Mother Mary, like us, was born in sin of sinful parents, but the Holy Spirit covered her, sanctified and purified her so that this child was born of flesh and blood, but not with sinful flesh and blood. The Holy Spirit permitted the Virgin Mary to remain a true, natural human being of flesh and blood, just as we. However, he warded off sin from her flesh and blood so that she became the mother of a pure child, not poisoned by sin as we are. For in that moment when she conceived, she was a holy mother filled with the Holy Spirit and her fruit is a holy pure fruit, at once God and truly man, in one person." [53] Some Lutherans, such as the members of the Anglo-Lutheran Catholic Church, support the doctrine.

Later on, Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz considered whether Mary was sinless in his Examination of the Council of Trent and concluded that the Decretum Gelasianum condemned certain not only certain Marian and nativity related pseudepigrapha, but also the doctrines they contained. [54]


Belief in Mary's immaculate conception is not a doctrine within Anglicanism, although it is shared by many Anglo-Catholics. [55] In the Church of England's Common Worship prayer book, December 8 is designated a Lesser Festival of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (without the adjective "immaculate"). [56]

The report "Mary: Faith and Hope in Christ", by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, concluded that the teaching about Mary in the two definitions of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception can be said to be consonant with the teaching of the Scriptures and the ancient common traditions. [57] But the report expressed concerns that the Roman Catholic dogmatic definitions of these concepts implies them to be "revealed by God", stating: "The question arises for Anglicans, however, as to whether these doctrines concerning Mary are revealed by God in a way which must be held by believers as a matter of faith." [58]

Other than Anglo-Catholics, most Anglicans reject the doctrine that Mary was sinless and conceived without original sin, often citing that it is not within the Holy Scripture and is against the redemptive role and purpose of Jesus Christ merited for all human beings.

Other Protestants

Most Protestants today reject the doctrine because they do not consider the development of dogmatic theology to be authoritative apart from biblical exegesis, and because the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is not taught in the Bible. [59] The formal pronouncement of Mary's Immaculate Conception by the Catholic Church in 1854 further alienated some Protestant churches largely due to its implication that not all have sinned. [60]

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.") [61] On the basis of the original Gregorian chant music, [62] polyphonic settings have been composed by Anton Bruckner, [63] Pablo Casals, Maurice Duruflé, [64] Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki, [65] no:Ola Gjeilo, [66] José Maurício Nunes Garcia, [67] and Nikolaus Schapfl. [68]

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. [69] 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. [70]

Ave Maris Stella is the vesper hymn of the feast of the Immaculate Conception. [71] The hymn Immaculate Mary , addressed to Mary as the Immaculately Conceived One, is closely associated with Lourdes. [72]


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. [73] Islam, however, lacks the concept of original sin: according to the Quran he was immediately forgiven for his sin in Eden, which could therefore never have been passed to his descendants. [74]

Artistic representations

Swiss emblem, 16th century ImmaculateEmblem.jpg
Swiss emblem, 16th century

During the Medieval period, the conception of Mary was symbolically depicted in the Meeting at the Golden Gate and was an early scene in the many cycles of the Life of the Virgin , as a counterpart of the Annunciation showing the conception of Jesus. To some medieval viewers, the kiss was a literal representation of the moment of Mary's conception, while for others it was a symbolic representation. The 14th and 15th centuries were the highpoint of these depictions. Gradually more allegorical depictions of the Immaculate Conception, featuring an adult Mary, replaced this scene in representing the doctrine. [75]

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. [76]

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 Immaculate Conception, drawing on the emblem tradition, seems to have been finally established by the master and then father-in-law of Diego Velázquez, the painter and theorist Francisco Pacheco. 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. [77] [78]

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. [79]

See also

Immaculate Conception celebration in Guatemala

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  44. Pilgrimages Committee. "St. Conleth's Catholic Heritage Association: Immaculate Conception".
  45. "cavendish".
  46. Decree of Our Most Holy Father Pope Paul V in Favor of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God . Lima, Peru : 1618. World Digital Library.
  48. "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Supremi Disciplinae".
  49. Mary by Sarah Jane Boss, Neil Warmsley 2004 ISBN   0-8264-5788-6 page 139
  50. Coyle 1996, p. 36.
  51. John Meyendorff, The Orthodox Church: Its Past and Its Role in the World Today (St Vladimir's Seminary Press 1996 ISBN   978-0-913836-81-1), p. 181
  52. McGuckin 2012, p. unpaginated.
  53. Brecht, Martin (1985). His Road to Reformation, 1483–1521. Martin Luther. 1. Translated by James Schaaf. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. p. 291. ISBN   978-0-8006-2813-0.
  54. For example, it condemned the Liber Requiei Mariae, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas," the Libellus de Nativitate Sanctae Mariae, and the Gospel of James, stating that these, together with a great deal of other books were "to be not merely rejected but eliminated from the whole Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church and with their authors and the followers of its authors to be damned in the inextricable shackles of anathema forever" From Decretum Gelasianum
  55. Our Lady Saint Mary by J.G.H. Barry, 2008, ISBN   0-554-24332-6, pages 25–27
  56. "Common Worship".
  57. Ecumenical Affairs – Dialogues – Anglican Roman Catholic Paragraph 78 – Accessed December 8, 2008
  58. Ecumenical Affairs – Dialogues – Anglican Roman Catholic Paragraph 60 – Accessed December 8, 2008
  59. The Protestant faith by George Wolfgang Forell 1962 ISBN   0-8006-1095-4 page 23
  60. Jesus in history, thought, and culture: an encyclopedia, Volume 1 by James Leslie Houlden 2003 ISBN   1-57607-856-6 page
  61. The text (in Latin) is given at Tota Pulchra Es – GMEA Honor Chorus.
  62. Tota pulchra es Maria, Canto gregoriano nella devozione mariana, studio di Giovanni Vianini, Milano. November 6, 2008 via YouTube.
  63. Anton Bruckner – Tota pulchra es. October 3, 2008 via YouTube.
  64. Maurice Duruflé: Tota pulchra es Maria. May 23, 2010 via YouTube.
  65. Tota pulchra es – Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki. June 17, 2011 via YouTube.
  66. TOTA PULCHRA ES GREX VOCALIS. May 21, 2009 via YouTube.
  67. Tota pulchra es, Maria Canto gregoriano nella devozione mariana. September 21, 2008 via YouTube.
  68. Tota Pulchra – Composed by Nikolaus Schapfl (*1963). January 4, 2010 via YouTube.
  69. "Prayers of Consecration". Archived from the original on December 11, 2008. Retrieved December 7, 2008.
  70. "Nine Days Of Prayer – Immaculate Conception".
  71. Sutfin, Edward J., True Christmas Spirit, Grail Publications, St. Meinrad, Indiana, 1955
  72. "Immaculate Conception Prayers".
  73. Göle 2016, p. 115.
  74. Kritzeck 2015, p. 120 fn.25.
  75. Hall, James, Hall's Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, 1996 (2nd edn.), John Murray, ISBN   0719541476, p. 171
  76. "The Immaculate Conception in Images".
  77. Ésotérisme, gnoses & imaginaire symbolique: mélanges offerts à Antoine Faivre by Richard Caron, Antoine Faivre 2001 ISBN   90-429-0955-2 page 676
  78. Divine Mirrors: The Virgin Mary in the Visual Arts by Melissa R. Katz and Robert A. Orsi 2001 ISBN   0-19-514557-7 page 98
  79. Our Lady in Art by Katherine Lee Rawlings Jenner 2009 ISBN   1-103-32689-9 pages 3–9