The Visitation by Unknown Cypriot Artist

Unknown Cypriot artist

The Visitation, 14th century, Wall painting, Church of Timios Stavros, Pelendri, Cyprus, The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

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Filled with Good Things

Commentary by

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 mankind (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.

 

References

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)