This sculpture of Mary and Elizabeth, created for the women of the Dominican convent of St Katharinenthal in the Lake Constance region of present-day Switzerland, is an image of sisterhood which reminds us that Mary’s song of praise arises in response to her encounter with Elizabeth. Because the sculpture does not, as most paintings of the scene might, provide a landscape or architectural setting for this moment, its context becomes the timeless one of relationship between two women, reflected in the circle created by their arms.
In some early versions of Luke the Magnificat is attributed to Elizabeth instead, and this work highlights their shared experience (Carroll 2012: 48). Many depictions of the Visitation contrast the youthful Mary with the elderly primigravida (first-time mother) Elizabeth. Here they look much closer in age and could even be sisters, sharing the common but marvellous experience of an unexpected but welcome pregnancy, hands clasped in mutual joy and understanding.
In many artistic representations of the Visitation Mary and Elizabeth reach out to touch each other’s bumps or shoulders. In the process their long cloaks often hide their bellies. The more open stance of the women in this sculpture invites the viewer to contemplate what they are carrying. At one time the cavities in their stomachs almost certainly contained images of Christ and John the Baptist, protected by clear rock crystals. Now it is only the rock crystals with which the women’s stomachs swell. The absence of foetal figures leaves the viewer free to contemplate the women and the radiance of their bodies, whole and complete in themselves, covered in glory and shining with the Spirit within.
Mary in the text of Luke begins her song with two declarations of personhood and of agency—‘My soul magnifies’ and ‘my spirit rejoices’—while each subsequent line begins with a verb.
The Mary of this sculpture is similarly dynamic. No passive receptacle, she reaches out with her right hand to greet and her left to reassure—a motherly gesture. This is woman blessed and woman blessing, drawing the viewer into the circle of sisterly love.
Carroll, John T. 2012. Luke: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press)
46And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
49for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50And his mercy is on those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
52he has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.”
56And Mary remained with her about three months, and returned to her home.