Columbia museum’s painting featured in Vatican exhibit


COLUMBIA — “The Immaculate Conception” by Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) has been displayed in the Columbia Museum of Art since 1962, evangelizing those who pass by with its message of hope and purity.

Approximately 250 people of various faiths gathered for a special ceremony Jan. 9 to bid farewell to the artwork as the museum prepared to send it to Rome for an exhibit at the Vatican.

“I am thankful to the religious community for their active role in this celebration today,” said Karen Brosius, executive director of the museum. The children’s choir of St. Peter Church and School performed several Marian hymns, inviting all to join in the singing.

In celebration of the 150th anniversary of Pope Pius IX’s proclamation of the doctrine of Immaculate Conception, the Vatican has arranged an exhibition titled “A Woman Dressed in Sun, Iconography of the Immaculate Conception” at the Braccio di Carlo Magno of The Vatican Museums.

The exhibition opened Feb. 11 and will close May 13.

According to the Columbia Museum of Art website, this monumental oil painting dated 1637 is approximately 9 feet tall by 6 feet wide and is one of Ribera’s better-known works. The painting will join others from famous museums such as the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Bishop Robert J. Baker was present during the Columbia event to give a special blessing of the 1637 painting.

“We gather to celebrate the wonderful work of art but also the faith that inspired the art. May it inspire faith in all who view it in the months ahead,” Bishop Baker said.

The bishop explained how the belief in the Immaculate Conception — that the Blessed Mother was conceived without sin — goes back many years before the formal proclamation.

Just as Adam and Eve were born without original sin, so the church proclaims that the Mother of God was also given total freedom from any effects of sin.

Joining the bishop were Msgr. Leigh Lehocky from St. Peter Church; Rev. Brenda Kneece, executive minister of the South Carolina Christian Action Council; and Sister Pamela Smith, of the Sisters of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, who gave a talk about Mary in theology and art.

Sister Smith, a doctor of theology and author of eight books, explained that Mary and beliefs about her have inspired art throughout Christian history. Reverence for Mary and interest in her continue to the present day, and even secular magazines have displayed her image on their covers.

The sister said she admires art that expresses Mary’s humility and humanity, such as the painting “The Annunciation” by African Methodist Episcopal artist Henry Osawa Tanner.

To Sister Smith, that particular work, which is enormous, portrays a woman who might be out of reach. Sister Smith said, however, that she noticed something different in that painting on the day of the celebration.

“I looked at her hands, [painted] with more of the reds, blues and purples. They were the hands of someone who had to deal with the sides of life that tear at us a bit, that turn our hands rough,” the nun said.

She explained that even though Mary is shown with angels above and below her, “she is still one of us earthlings.”

Sister Smith said that the picture and the theology behind it are cause for human hope, a hope that somewhere in humanity there is total holiness.

Ribera’s “The Immaculate Conception” was one of 77 Renaissance and Baroque paintings, sculptures, and decorative art objects donated to the Columbia Museum of Art by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in 1954 and 1962. Kress, owner of the Kress five- and ten-cent stores, was a renowned art collector.

The painting will be returned to the museum this summer.

For more information about “The Immaculate Conception” go to