The Gospel of Luke describes Mary entering the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and greeting her kinswoman (1:40), but the Visitation is often depicted outdoors, as in this fourteenth-century wall painting from Pelendri in Cyprus.
From at least the sixth century the women were commonly portrayed near buildings, and the iconography of these buildings, with their hidden depths, frequently emphasizes that the revelatory nature of their encounter is still essentially invisible. Through the inclusion of archways to pass through, steps to climb, and curtains parted to reveal something just out of sight, the architecture of the Visitation points towards the future visibility of Jesus and John the Baptist, reflecting the women’s expectant state. The ‘threshold’ is particularly symbolic here in relation to the Virgin’s pregnancy because it can symbolize penetrating while leaving intact, while a doorway can function as a metaphor for birth (and revelation), suggesting the passage from dark interior to light exterior. The meetings occur at thresholds where the women, on the brink of sacred motherhood, experience the revelation of the unborn John’s recognition of Christ (1:41, 44), and their own prophetic response (vv.42–55).
At Pelendri, these architectural and interior associations are counterbalanced by a rugged landscape. Mountains are sometimes associated symbolically with the Virgin, and in apocryphal stories about the infancy of John and Jesus they provide refuge from the Massacre of the Innocents. They often feature in Visitation landscapes, a reminder of the Virgin’s journey through the Judaean hill country (v.41), but are also suggestive of high places of theophany (e.g. Exodus 19; Matthew 17:1–9).
At the Visitation, Mary herself is a place of theophany and at Pelendri, as in so many Visitation images, her meeting with Elizabeth is characterized both by the intimacy of their kinship and shared experience of pregnancy, and also by its universal significance in the history of salvation: a deeply private vantage point on the cusp of Christ’s coming.
Hock, Ronald F. 1996. The Infancy Gospels of James and Thomas (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press)
Schiller, Gertrud. 1971. The Iconography of Christian Art (London: Lund Humphries), pp. 55–6
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.”