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.
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)
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.”