I was recently asked about Zurburan’s Immaculate Conception. I was aware of the general description of the iconography of the image, but could not interpret the details of everything that he has painted. My go-to person in these situations is Dr Caroline Farey, who once again will lead the teaching on the distance-learning diploma Art, Beauty and Inspiration run by the Diocese of Kansas City, Kansas through their Maryvale Center.
The general description comes from the teacher and father in law of Velazquez, Francisco Pacheco. He wrote a book, the Art of Painting in which he describes it. His starting point is the book of Revelation: “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars,” (Revelation, 12:1-2). Pacheco wrote: ‘Our Lady should be painted as a beautiful young girl, 12 or 13 years old, in the flower of her youth. She should be painted wearing a white tunic and a blue mantle. She is surrounded by the sun, an oval sun of white and ochre, which sweetly blends into the sky. Rays of light emanate from her head, around which is a ring of twelve stars. An imperial crown adorns her head, without, however, hiding the stars. Under her feet is the moon.’
Pacheco, through his teaching and writing, is hugely influential in the creation of the Spanish tradition of baroque naturalism, from which so many great painters emerged – Velazquez, Zurburan, Murillo, Cano, Ribera. It is particularly frustrating therefore, that only a few pages of over 700 are translated into English. This is one document that does seem worth studying if you are interested in working within the baroque tradition today. As with so much else, what he wrote and taught on this matter was followed by his Spanish followers. In regard to the Immaculate Conception, artists took his guidance for a long time afterwards, perhaps changing a few details. This version, by Zurburan follows it closely but has a red rather than a white tunic. Rather than symbolise her purity directly with white, Zurburan, chose red which is usually considered as representing humanity.
Looking first at the lower section of the painting: the palm tree on the left is the standard symbol of justice flourishing (Psalm 92:12), and also a symbol of Lady Wisdom (Sir. 24:14), consigned to Our Lady. On the (Read More)