El Greco’s exceptionally dramatic visualisation of the Visitation presents Mary and Elizabeth in a minimal, somewhat ambiguous, setting, the context stripped to strong architectural features. The background gives the mysterious impression of a troubled sky, harshly illuminated by strobe-like flashes of white, reminiscent of lightning, of angels, of the beating of wings. The women themselves appear electrically charged, and the negative spaces created by the dark voids of the doorway, and the deep folds of material, add to the drama. With its strong forms and contrasting colours, the painting has an energy which is not subdued by the figures’ arrested movement.
The Virgin appears at once precariously and solidly planted, her position reflecting the tensions between the sorrows and the joys of her sacred motherhood. She is steadfast, called to the limits of suffering, poised here before the darkness beyond the doorway.
The dramatic lighting and the charged atmosphere recall the Crucifixion, with the earth quaking in darkness, while the open doorway suggests the unveiling of the entrance to the Holy of Holies in the Temple (Matthew 27:45–54; Mark 15:33–38; Luke 23:44–45). Indeed, El Greco painted a Crucifixion which bears striking similarities to his Visitation. (Christ Crucified with Toledo in the Background, c.1604–16, Fundación Banco Santander, Madrid.)
The doorway is a threshold, a place of transition with undertones of birth, and El Greco’s Visitation shows a quickening of Creation as the Saviour approaches. Mary’s joys (including the Visitation) and sorrows (including the Crucifixion) are intimately connected, and her self-emptying act of giving birth prefigures Christ’s redemptive kenosis on the Cross. The unusual darkness and dramatic energy of El Greco’s painting brings the Visitation and the Crucifixion together in this way, and the visit of a pregnant woman to her cousin speaks here of an impending universal transformation.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. 2005. 'Visitation: Of Christian Painting', in The Ground of the Image (New York: Fordham University Press)
39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, 40and she entered the house of Zechariʹah and greeted Elizabeth. 41And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”