Rebecca Teresi

Images of the Immaculate Conception and the Rhetorics of Purity in Golden Age Spain

Adviser: Felipe Pereda

  • 2021
  • Johns Hopkins University

Perhaps the defining image of the Spanish Golden Age, the Immaculate Conception was painted, printed, carved, minted, and drawn to saturation point throughout the Iberian Peninsula from the early years of the seventeenth century. To promote the cause effectively, supporters of the contested belief in the Virgin’s sinless conception had turned to the most powerful tool at their disposal: image-making. The selection and deployment of a strategically replicable iconography —as simple as it was persuasive —by artists working in Spain in the first decades of the seventeenth century resulted in one of the most successful visual campaigns of the post-Tridentine era. Due in large part to this flood of images, the belief in the Virgin’s immaculacy went from an arcane and ongoing debate among theologians to a popular movement in the streets and a point of contention in international politics.

This dissertation reevaluates immaculist images made in Spain during the height of the movement, roughly spanning 1600-1630. It probes the ways in which their success in generating popular support for the cult was also adapted and adopted for the advancement of a variety of extra- devotional agendas: artistic, personal, and political. In doing so, it problematizes the purely iconographic approach that has characterized scholarship on the subject for many decades. It is organized around five case studies, each of which demonstrates the exceptional rhetorical plasticity and uniquely persuasive capacity of the immaculist image. No mere illustrations of a devotional craze, images of the Immaculate Conception provide a starting point for a reappraisal of the multifunctionality of religious images writ large.

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