The Purissima
This life-size Purissima (55 x 40 in.) was painted by Francisco de Zurbarán in 1661, the very year that Pope Alexander VII prohibited any attack upon the doctrine, the feast, or the cult of the Immaculate Conception. Although a remarkably free treatment compared to traditional representations of the Immaculate Conception, this work retains familiar features, such as the two heads of the cherubs at her feet, the outline of the moon (a full moon here rather than a crescent), and her crown of stars, in reference to the Book of Revelation (Rv 12:1).
The master painter took as his model a young girl in the person of his youngest daughter, Maria, then eleven years old. Totally absorbed in contemplation of the perfection of God’s beneficent plan for the salvation of mankind, the young Virgin Mary wears her hair loose, a sign of her freedom from the tyranny of concupiscence. She stands out against a background of dark gold smoldering like fire: this is the original clay fashioned by the mind of God. Animated by the wind of the Holy Spirit, her magnificent cloak of a beautifully deep navy blue surrounds her like a mandorla (an almond-shaped background). This is the symbol of the purifying waters of baptism in which Mary was immersed in anticipation of the merits of her Son and Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ. And this is why she may wear the white tunic, without blemish, of the Immaculate.
We might benefit from the inspiration of the poetry of the Venerable Jacques Sevin as we contemplate this painting:
Like carefully chosen dough,
The Creator molds the heart of Mary:
The vessel must contain the Bread that satisfies.
See God, attentive to the least detail;
The mysterious Spirit alone informs the clay.
For, before this masterpiece, He wants our raptures.
The Master bends lovingly over his work
And, with a breath, the lovely vessel
suddenly becomes the heart of Mary.
Pierre-Marie Dumont
Immaculate Conception, Francisco de Zurbaran (1598–1664), Church of Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais, Langon, France. © RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Pierre Lagiewski.