The Visitation by El Greco

El Greco

The Visitation, c.1610–14, Oil on canvas, 96.52 x 71.44 cm, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC, HC.P.1936.18.(O), © Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC / De Agostini Picture Library / Bridgeman Images

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Beginning Again

Individual Commentary
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 and 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.

 

References

Ouspensky, Leonid, and Lossky, Vladimir. 1999. The Meaning of Icons (New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press)