Among the staples of western mythological art, the Immaculate Conception is at once the most theoretically difficult and the most practically achievable. La Inmaculada lies beyond contemplation if the painter dwells even slightly on his challenge. How do you paint female perfection? The utterly flawless, ever virgin mother of salvation? Just how do you depict the triumph of the Mother of God over the Fall of Woman, the miracle by which Mary, conceived free of sin, makes straight the path for redeeming Eve and her daughters?
By the same token, every painter sees his Inmaculada, not in his mind's eye, but in the same eye that surveys the streets, the stalls, and the shadows that stretch before him. The butcher's daughter, the music teacher, the weaver of women's shawls and maker of men's awe — the painter seeking a model for the Virgin will find her while strolling not two hundred paces from his doorstep. And those steps have echoed time and again in the ears of the artist: the clack of pumps against asphalt, the slide of sandals on sand, the painful crinkle of unshielded soles on pebbles lining the path between home and the village well. So often has the artist walked past María-in-waiting that he can conjure multiple living images, not perfect but near enough, merely by blinking.
The most thoroughly Christian project of painting La Inmaculada resembles nothing so much as the pagan ritual originally perfected by Pygmalion, albeit in reverse. For Pygmalion so loved his graven Galatea that the gods took pity and gave her life, that Pygmalion might not die alone, but know mortal joy. For his part, the painter of any Inmaculada synthesizes his worldly love, or perhaps even his quiet lust, into a glimpse of perfection in the eye of God the Father. Pity by immortals helps Pygmalion draw profane passion from stone. Contemplation of the infinite helps the pious painter translate personal desire into divine perfection. Inmaculada mía.
You cannot seek a vision the Virgin, says the Church. Apparitions of Mary — and, for that matter, of her son — come to the believer, almost invariably during the youth of the witness, and never through pursuit. I went hunting all the same, in Spain.
Few lands, after all, are as spiritually contested as Spain. Five centuries later, Spain remains la España de la Reconquista, the successful military object of los reyes católicos. Trace la ruta de la califata, I said to myself, and surely la Virgen will reveal herself. In the sere extremes of Andalucía I sensed the faded presence of skeptical Moors. But Mary herself proved elusive.
In the Prado I at last glimpsed the Virgin. She came not as an apparition, for age had already begun to creep on me, and I had far more mortal desire than belief or purity of heart. Instead, I saw her as oil on cloth, a more faithful rendering than the believing eye can muster. I cannot recall the name of the painter. Tiepolo or perhaps Murillo, I have been told, by true connoisseurs of religious art.
And as quickly as I perceived my Inmaculada, she vanished. Now as then, I ask in vain, ¿Donde está la Inmaculada más bonita, María con la corona de estrellas? Ahí, ahí.
Bit by bit, la Inmaculada reveals herself to me again. I see her, though darkly, reassembled in my mind's eye, as my eyes survey the shadows that stretch before me. Each step from my door brings her into sharper focus; I shall find her not by way of military Reconquista, but rather through personal reclamation and reconstruction. And now face to face: María llena eres de gracia. Blessed are you among women, and though I am not worthy to see you, only say the word, and I shall be healed. For yours is the power, and the glory, and above all love made flesh.