The theme of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception was of unsurpassed importance to the faithful of Seville in the seventeenth century. The dispute over the immaculacy of the Virgin Mary was one of the most divisive in the history of the Renaissance church. There were two parties to the debate: the immaculist, lead by the Franciscan order, who believed that the Virgin had been miraculously conceived without original sin, and the sanctification party, lead by the Dominicans, who held that Mary had been conceived in sin and subsequently sanctified, or purified, in the womb of her mother. From the late Middle Ages the church of Castile had been an ardent proponent of the immaculist doctrine and repeatedly attempted to persuade the popes to elevate it to the status of a dogma. Finally in 1661 Pope Alexander VII issued a constitution declaring the immunity of Mary from original sin and forbidding further discussions of the issue.
News of the papal ruling intensified in Seville the demand for images of the Virgin Immaculate. Murillo’s rendition, executed for the Escorial, is faithful to the spirit of the times: the youthful Mary is a lovely creation, her physical beauty a sufficient expression of her purity; only a few putti are needed as supporting players. Murillo’s appealing vision of the Immaculate Conception became canonical.