Filled with Good Things
Commentary by Chloë Reddaway
The Visitation narrative celebrates God’s life-giving power. The old and supposedly barren Elizabeth, and the Virgin Mary, conceive; empty wombs are filled. Many Visitation images highlight this filling of the void, particularly a type of image (especially popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries) which shows the unborn infants, either ‘floating’ outside their mothers, or positioned ‘in front’ of their mothers’ wombs, as if one could see through the mothers’ flesh.
The two improbably pregnant women embrace, their arms and halos interlinking, reminding the viewer of their kinship and visibly connecting the unborn cousins, Jesus and John the Baptist. The parity implied by the women’s height and position (often Elizabeth kneels or bows her head) is, however, tempered by the figure of John, who is bowing to Jesus, shown as if seated, with his right hand raised, blessing his cousin in utero.
This is the first recorded moment in which Jesus’s presence on earth is felt and it establishes the relationship between Jesus and John, his precursor and prophet. As John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb (Luke 1:41), he inspires her prophetic speech, to which Mary responds with the Magnificat (vv.46–55). It is also, therefore, the first encounter between Mary and John, whose crucial roles in supporting Christ’s mission and ministry are often closely linked (Reddaway 2015: 201–3). They appear alongside him here, at the start of his life, while in heaven they are often presented flanking Christ Pantocrator, interceding for humanity (Deësis images).
Making images of Christ has traditionally been justified because, through the Incarnation, God had made himself visible. In depictions of the Visitation which make explicit the implicit fullness of this event, viewers are invited to share visibly in a still-invisible God incarnate, to fill their eyes with something which even Mary and Elizabeth cannot yet see.
Reddaway, Chloë. 2015. Transformations in Persons and Paint: Visual Theology, Historical Images, and the Modern Viewer (Turnhout: Brepols), ch. 7
Velu, Anne Marie. 2012. La Visitation dans l’art Orient et Occident Ve – XVIe siècle (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf)
Mary the Ark
Commentary by Chloë Reddaway
Reading the Visitation narrative alongside passages from the Old Testament may suggest a figural understanding of the Virgin as the new Ark of the Covenant, carrying the Word of God.
There are strong typological parallels with 2 Samuel, and with the sacred rod and manna (Numbers 17:1–11; Exodus 16:33–34; Hebrews 9:4) that were kept before, or inside, the Ark, along with the tablets of the Covenant. These may be figurally related to Christ, as the ‘rod out of the stem of Jesse’ (Isaiah 11:1 KJV) and the ‘bread of life’ (John 6:35), borne by Mary. Thus the third-century theologian, Athanasius wrote: ‘O [Ark of the New] Covenant, clothed with purity instead of gold! You are the Ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which divinity resides’ (Gambero 2007: 106). Given the patristic association of the Ark with Mary, one might also see a similar connection in the imagery of the book of Revelation: the Ark is revealed and the heavenly sign which follows is the celestial woman (also frequently understood as Mary) whose son is taken up to God’s throne (11:19–12:5).
As well as the Ark, the Virgin is associated with the Church itself, Ecclesia. In Pontormo’s fresco, the encircling architecture of the apse and the real presence of Christ, before which Elizabeth and the unborn John kneel, present Mary as both Church and Tabernacle, containing the body of Christ, the bread of life. In Pontormo’s image, Ecclesia replaces Temple and Synagogue; the Virgin replaces the Ark; the Cross and its memorial in the Eucharist replace animal sacrifice in the Temple. The covenant with Abraham (signalled in the binding of Isaac, above the Virgin) and the Law of Moses, are fulfilled in the new covenant which is embedded in the faithful and joyful fertility of the Virgin, the new covenant of grace in Christ.
Athanasias, ‘Homily of the Papyrus of Turin’, in Gambero, Luigi. 2007. Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought (San Francisco: Ignatius Press), pp. 106–7
Boss, Sarah Jane, ed. 2007. Mary: The Complete Resource (London: Continuum), pp. 2–4
Thaumaturgus, Gregory. ‘First Homily’ in Four Homilies, on the Annunciation to the Holy Virgin Mary’, available at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/06091.htm
Commentary by Chloë Reddaway
The Visitation presents the unborn body of the Lord in a place where no body is expected, in the womb of a virgin which ‘should’ be empty; Easter morning presents no body where a body is expected, in a tomb which ‘should not’ have been empty. These extraordinary events are prefigured in the pregnancies of the barren Elizabeth, Sarah, and Anna, and in the raising of Lazarus (John 11), but the events which involve the body of Christ are necessarily exceptional and the miraculous appearance, disappearance, and reappearance of Christ’s body, witnessed by women, are among the most powerful signs of his divinity.
In the formal recognition of Christ as Lord even before his birth, the witnesses—the first to proclaim his significance—are women inspired by an unborn child. John, whose role as forerunner and messenger was sometimes considered angelic (Ouspensky & Lossky 1999: 106), ‘announces’ Christ’s unexpected presence in Mary’s womb; an angel likewise announces Christ’s incredible absence from the empty tomb to the women who are the first witnesses to the resurrection, and the first to report this news (e.g. Matthew 28:1–8; John 20:11–18). In the revolution of an unexpectedly full womb and a shockingly empty tomb, is the possibility of a new beginning, of the redemption achieved by Christ’s death and resurrection, and the genesis of the New Creation.
Where illuminated manuscripts poured rays of golden sunshine onto the women, and Renaissance altarpieces depicted a growing retinue of female companions attending the Virgin, opening the encounter to an expanding group of women, El Greco gives us a solitary meeting in semi-darkness. The emotional tenor is deeply serious; the significance of their encounter earth-shattering. As streaks of electric white break through to illuminate the darkness, the promise of Mary’s pregnancy begins to point towards the redemption to come.
Ouspensky, Leonid, and Lossky, Vladimir. 1999. The Meaning of Icons (New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press)
Unknown Cypriot artist :
The Visitation, 14th century , Wall painting
The Visitation, 1514–16 , Fresco
El Greco :
The Visitation, c.1610–14 , Oil on canvas
Commentary by Chloë Reddaway
So ‘filled with good things’ is the Visitation that it offers remarkable opportunities for artists exploring its possibilities.
There is the tender intimacy of the personal encounter between two kinswomen sharing an extraordinary experience of pregnancy. There are the unborn infants inspiring their mothers, prompting a desire to look through the veil of flesh concealing the Christ Child and his forerunner, to make visible the invisible divine. Some Visitations attend to typology, offering figural readings of narrative forms in the Old Testament from the perspective of the Incarnation of Christ. Then there are the contexts in which the Visitation is imagined, settings which work in conjunction with the women to create a place in which Christ’s imminent arrival takes effect. There are landscapes which, recalling the lost Eden, hold out the possibility of a return to grace through the fertile New Earth of the virginal Second Eve, high places of theophany, and buildings characterized by an emphasis on architectural features suggestive of revelation: doorways, steps, and parted curtains. In some Visitations the presence of the Holy Spirit is suggested energetically through dynamic movement, flapping veils, scudding clouds; in others it is explicit in the form of a dove, or showers of golden light. And in some there is a sense of the quickening of Creation, of something utterly new taking form in the dark, watery void, of the opening verses of Genesis echoing in a virgin’s womb.
The Pelendri mural offers the glimpse of the invisible divine, showing us Christ’s first meeting with John, establishing the kinship and the hierarchy between them. This ‘ultrasound’ vision (a foretaste of the many apocryphal images of Christ and John as children, with their mothers) is protected within the women’s warm embrace, and flanked by references to theophany in the landscape and buildings. Pontormo’s fresco shifts the emphasis to Mary, allowing us to see her in relation to Abraham and in her role as Ecclesia, the Ark, the Tabernacle. In a church dedicated to the Virgin Annunciate, a few yards from a miraculous image of Mary, this Visitation presents her within the continuity of salvation history, blessed even beyond Abraham, a woman so full of grace that she becomes the house of God. El Greco’s Visitation amplifies the gravitas of the women’s encounter, on the brink of joy and disaster. With its monumental figures, dark palette, and vivid highlighting, it presents the scene with the dramatic energy of an electric storm and seems to associate it with death as well as birth, with rupture as well as gestation.
In all three works, the women unashamedly occupy centre stage. Where depictions of Eve have, arguably, reinforced androcentric views of women, the Visitation offers another bite of the apple. These images relocate women who were socially, religiously, marginal—the one supposedly beyond maternal usefulness, the other unmarried—to the centre. They assert a female, physical, recognition of goodness which contrasts with the post-lapsarian distortion of human physicality, and looks ahead to the New Creation. Wisdom, prophecy, and praise speak from within the female body. And, where the Annunciation is a personal, essentially interior event, the Visitation expands that interiority through encounter with others, often moving to an outdoor setting. Elizabeth and the unborn John are the first to proclaim Christ’s presence: the first evangelists of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Up steps, through doorways, and from the heights, these three images invite the viewer to stand at the threshold of the Visitation and, from its vantage point, look backwards through Old Testament precursors, to the first sin, and as far as Creation; and forwards, through Christ to the New Creation. Its beginnings are felt here because the Visitation, in its pregnant, threshold state of ‘already and not yet’, also makes possible the post-resurrection life into which Christians believe they are reborn in baptism. Artists depicting the Visitation have drawn attention to its typological origins, its miraculous present, and its living, vital, anticipation of the future, in dynamic, tender, surprising, and richly associative ways, telescoping into one image the generations of God’s encounter with his people, past, present, and future and showing, in myriad ways, that transformation has been conceived, that its effects are already felt, but that it has not yet been born.
Beattie, Tina. 2002. God's Mother, Eve's Advocate: A Marian Narrative of Women's Salvation (London: Continuum)
———. 2007. 'Mary in Patristic Theology’, in Mary: The Complete Resource, ed. by Sarah Jane Boss (London: Continuum)
Boss, Sarah Jane (ed.). 2007. Mary: The Complete Resource (London: Continuum)