Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church


Guido Reni’s “The Immaculate Conception”

December 11th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie


I thought maybe we could extend the celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception by reflecting on a painting by Guido Reni (Italian, Bologna 1575–1642) I ran across today. Specifically, let’s look at how the artist has organized the elements of art according to the principles of design to convey the meaning of the subject.1

Reni interprets purity (preservation from original sin) by creating an analogous visual experience of stability (balance), wellness, wholeness, peace, harmony, and calm. The interpretation being that sin can be thought of as illness, imperfection, instability –the condition of fallen man.

First, however: We naturally think of white color when we think of something or someone as ‘immaculate’ –free of stain, and certainly Reni plays to that natural tendency by using a palette of soft pastel colors. He has adjusted every pure color of paint (from the naturally occurring spectrum of colors) through the addition of white in order to raise the value of each color to a lighter version. Every color in this painting is a ‘tint’ of its hue (the color pink, for example, is a lighter value [some would say shade] of the hue red). Soft, pastel colors suggest innocence to us and are often used on young children’s clothes and such.

So, Reni does the traditional in his interpretation of ‘immaculate’ as purity but then shifts to an analogous interpretation through his choice of colors to use in the painting. By restricting his use of colors to a palette of mostly reds (pinks), yellows (yellow-orange, really), and blues Reni plays on our sense of balance.


Looking at an artist’s diagrammatic color wheel we note that red, yellow and blue are situated equal distant from each other around the wheel. Red, yellow and blue, you will remember, are the so-called primary colors –all other colors are derived from them.2 Reni creates a sense of completeness, perfection and balance by using, in almost equal importance, all three of the primary colors.

This interpretation of ‘immaculate’ as perfection, wellness, and stability (that sin would stain or upset) is further stressed when we notice that the artist has arranged his composition according to the principle of symmetrical balance: the right and left sides of the design mirror each other (or nearly so). Artists deploy symmetrical balance when they wish to communicate a sense of stability and balance, permanency and the ‘ideal’. Asymmetrical balance is often used when an artist wants to convey a sense of movement, instability, tension.

There is movement in this painting which tends to communicate a heavenly or spiritual magnetism. Notice the alignment of contours, edges and poses in the Virgin and angels that sweeps us upward into a golden (read “idea/divine”) space. The soft contrapposto pose of the Virgin reminds us of a flame.

Notice the entire composition is contained in an egg shaped oval. Notice, also, that the womb of the Virgin is at the center of that oval. Is this a reference to full of life, full of grace?

A master artist is aware of certain visual needs that people have that have to be accommodated in order to make a work ‘satisfying’ from a purely human, sensual perspective. In our fallen state we crave excitement and distraction for we are attracted by sinful habits. That’s an imperfection in us, but there it is. From an artistic point of view that means that we get bored by too much visual harmony. This painting has elements deployed in counterpoint, contrast. For example, notice that blue would seem to be the color we notice first in this painting and that would seem to contradict our sense of balance; blue is upsetting the apple cart by trying to take over the design. But, it’s held in check by the ocean of yellow-orange in the background. If we consult our color wheel we can see that blue and orange are opposite each other; there is no color more different from blue than orange; blue and orange totally contrast (clash). Reni knows this little fact of color theory and arranges color so that he not only creates harmony and balance through the use of a tri-color harmony but does so by actually incorporating the visual dissonance of complementary color theory to head off visual boredom.

He does the same thing by using just a little green and purple in this painting. Look for those two colors on the color wheel and you’ll see they are opposite red and yellow. (Maintaining visual interest is also the reason the composition is approximately symmetrical and not perfectly so.)

Reni’s painting is a very beautiful presentation of the “Immaculate Conception”. But, in order to fully appreciate beauty in the service of truth in a painting or sculpture a person has to reflect on how the artist is deploying the elements of art according to the principles of design3. That requires that we take time to really look at the work. In Eastern icons, that is less true for the use of the elements is carefully regimented so that each icon results in a careful and faithful copy of its prototype.  In the East, because of its tradition, you are far less likely to encounter controversy over an icon. That advantage is somewhat offset, from a Western perspective, by a sense of boredom. In Western sacred art, variety –interesting compositions in the use of the elements– are more the rule but that comes at the risk of controversy, ambiguity, and even heresy. Reni seems to have avoided the pitfalls in this painting. It’s orthodox and beautiful.


1 The Elements of art are: line, shape, form, value (lights and darks), color, texture, and space. The Principles of design are: balance, emphasis, harmony, variety, gradation, movement/rhythm, and proportion.

2 Technically, a shade is a darker value or version of a hue; a tint is a lighter version. A hue is a term that applies to any color as it naturally appears in the color spectrum. The color brown is not a hue but rather a shade of the hue, yellow. Notice that brown is not in the spectrum of colors. Neither is pink.

3 Green, as an example, is derived by mixing equal quantities of the primary colors yellow and blue together. Green is positioned between yellow and blue on the color wheel. Such derived colors are called secondary.

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One Response to “Guido Reni’s “The Immaculate Conception””

  1. avatar DanielKane says:

    Simply a masterful piece; thanks.

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