The Immaculate Conception by Diego Velázquez

Diego Velázquez

The Immaculate Conception, 1618–19, Oil on canvas, 135 x 101.6 cm, The National Gallery, London; Bought with the aid of The Art Fund, 1974, NG6424, © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

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Queen of Heaven and Earth

Commentary by

And she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. (Revelation 12:2)

The Carmelites, for whom Diego Velázquez probably made this painting, traced their origins to the Old Testament prophet Elijah, who saw on Mount Carmel ‘a little cloud rising from the sea’ (1 Kings 18:44). For the Carmelites, this cloud prefigured the Virgin Mary and her conception free from any stain (macula) of original sin.

Velázquez has surrounded the Virgin with clouds, trees, and sea, the attributes of God’s own Wisdom as Wisdom herself describes them in Ecclesiasticus 24:

I covered the earth like mist, my throne was a pillar of cloud. I alone have made a circuit of the heavens. I have grown tall as a cedar on Lebanon, as a cypress on Mount Hermon, as a palm in En-Gedi. I am like a conduit from a river, and my river has grown into a sea. (vv.3–5, 13–14, 31, own translation)

Meanwhile, the bridegroom speaks of his bride in the Song of Solomon: ‘She is a garden enclosed, a sealed fountain. Who is this rising like the dawn, fair as the moon, resplendent as the sun?’ (4:15; 6:10, own translation) So the Church speaks of Mary, virgin-mother; the painting’s circular temple is based on Rome’s temple to the virginal Vesta.

The woman in this vision is there for all to see. The sign simply ‘was seen’ (v.1); the seer does not say that as a privileged mystic ‘I saw’. We become the visionaries. The constellations take body and life. A young woman, far larger than the moon, emerges from the sun to fill the heavens. She is modest and demure; she is perhaps modelled on Velázquez’s own sister Juana (b.1609). This is a Queen of Heaven and earth alike with no crown or clutter, of an age to become the virginal mother of Jesus and so of all his beloved disciples (John 19:26–7). 

We nowadays revere astronomy; astrology, we disregard. To read Revelation we need to re-learn something of astrology’s language. Not in order to credit its claims; but to sense the disclosure of God’s purposes in the vast complexity of the heavens, here come down, on a beautifully translucent moon, to be within reach of us and of our hearts on earth.