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The Immaculate Conception

The Declaration of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception

Francesco Podesti (1810-1895). Pinacoteca Comunale. Ancona. 1856.

Francesco Podesti made a painting that was a carton for frescoes to be made in the Vatican for the proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the virgin in 1854. Pope Pius IX officially enacted the dogma in the bull ‘Ineffabilis Deus’ and the proclamation was the final expression of the cult of the virgin Mary. Feasts were organised throughout Rome and the world. The Pope even asked Francesco Podesti to decorate with his frescoes the Papal apartments and these paintings were to be made next to the old stanzas of the ‘Fire in the Borgo’ by Raphael. Podesti presented four cartons to Pius IX, among which the one we propose here. The Pope discussed the subject with the painter and gave his preferences. Podesti studied about a hundred figures that were present tat the ceremony in Saint Peter’s basilica, and at which assisted fifty-three cardinals and a hundred forty-two other dignitaries of the Catholic Church I37 .

Francesco Podesti was born in Ancona, where the local gallery, the ‘Pinacoteca Civica di Ancona’, now bears his name. He came to Rome early, still a young man. He worked in Rome for the Pope and for the wealthy bankers of the city. In the second half of the century he also painted in Milan, and worked there for the aristocracy of northern Italy. He was a painter of historical, patriotic, classical and religious themes of the Romantic period. This was a period during which new wealth grew in Europe and also during which nations consolidated. The kingdom of Italy was being founded and Rome had gone through a period of rebellions in which even the Republic of Rome had been proclaimed. But Rome was now again governed by the Popes; Pius IX marked the end of the troubles by the feasts of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. This period in the history of western Europe needed grand scenes to decorate the pride of the nations, to illustrate the great feats of the countries and to laude the accomplishments of its more famous citizens. Francesco Podesti was part of this movement, like other master painters of Europe such as Daniel Maclise in England, Gyula Benczúr in Hungary, Louis Gallait in Belgium, Hans Makart in Austria or Henri Laurens in France. Still, Podesti had a style of his own. He painted in strong hues and strong brushstrokes, yet that could give the viewer from a distance an impression of great detail in his depiction. Podesti’s ‘Proclamation of the Dogma’ is such a painting.

The ‘Proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception’ is truly a majestic scene, as it should be for a picture that would have to compete with Raphael’s stanzas in the Vatican. Podesti split the scene in two parts. At the bottom he showed the ceremony of the proclamation in Saint Peter’s basilica. Above this scene he showed the glory of the Virgin Mary in heaven. Angels form the link on both sides of the frame between the two scenes.

In the lower part we see the Pope sitting on his throne. The cardinals and high dignitaries of the Catholic Church are sitting around him in council. The Pope receives the bull and will officially announce the Dogma. The scene is grand. The Pope thrones like an emperor and he is dressed in a white robe and a brilliant golden cloak. In the darkness of the hall, the white screen behind the Pope and the white throne catch all attention. Podesti emphasised the earthly grandeur and pomp of the ceremony, rather than the spiritual act. But the Pope is only the worldly instrument of the heavens. So Podesti drew a ray of light that comes from the scene above and envelopes the Pope, thus justifying the divine inspiration of the act of the Pope. The figure that sends the light is the Holy Spirit, who also holds Mary’s crown, and the rays go over Saint Paul, the spiritual sword of Christianity.

In the upper part, and around the virgin, stand the apostles, martyrs, and saints, obviously called together by god to witness the proclamation in the heavens. Above Mary, to the sides of God the Father sit the apostles. Jesus and the Holy Spirit are next to her. Then to the left on the frame we see the saints. To the right are the Roman kings and emperors, such as Constantine who institutionalised the Christian faith in Rome’s antiquity. To the far left a lady saint holds high the sign of the cross in a very epic act and here angels with trumpets and books call together the lords of heaven. On the extreme right side then avenging angels drive away the wicked with sword of fire. The declaration of the Pope was ordered by the heavens, so Podesti showed the symbiosis between the Catholic Church and the realm of God. The Virgin stands in full glory, against the light of a sun, and above her we see God the Father. This presentation is epic, composed as a historical scene with al the actors together, in the world and in heaven.

Besides a structure in two bands, Podesti also drew a pyramid structure with God the father at the top. The sides of the pyramid go over Saint Peter and Saint Paul, to the central lower scene in which we find the Pope and his cardinals engaged in the proclamation. Podesti brought then various symmetries in lines and colours of the painting, which are easily discovered.

Francesco Podesti’s work has more interest for its theme and for its sheer photographic witnessing than for its artistic expression. We have a reproduction of the event, nicely composed and painted. Podesti showed for next generations the grandeur of the moment. But we do not have with this a scene that reflects on the theme, or an emotional expression of the spiritual significance of the miracle of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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