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