Jacopo Pontormo’s Visitation fresco, unusually, includes a (now very faint) depiction of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1–19) in a niche above Mary and Elizabeth, and the badly damaged accompanying inscriptions may have referred to God’s covenant with Abraham, and the importance of trusting in God (Wasserman 1995: 42). The connection between Abraham and the Visitation is made by Mary herself in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55), associating God’s favour to her with his promise ‘to Abraham and to his descendants’ (Luke 1:55).
The association goes further. The Visitation can be read as part of a perfected version of a narrative form founded in the typology of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac (Genesis 18–22), and reflected in the story of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John the Baptist (Luke 1), and the apocryphal story of Joachim, Anne, and Mary. A righteous but childless couple miraculously become parents and the child is dedicated to God (a dedication that will take them to the point of sacrifice). Thus these parents and their children become instrumental in the covenants made between God and his people. Abraham’s obedient trust is rewarded when a ram is substituted for Isaac and God establishes his covenant with Abraham, but there is no such reprieve for Mary when her son becomes the innocent sacrifice. No ram replaces the Lamb of God when the new covenant is established in Christ.
As Elizabeth kneels before Mary, the unborn John kneels (invisibly) before Christ, their figures mirroring those of Abraham and Isaac above. Pontormo’s fresco juxtaposes the first encounter between Christ and his forerunner, John, with Christ’s typological precursor, Isaac, and aligns the obedient faith of Mary with that of Abraham. If Isaac is a type for Christ, prefiguring him as the innocent sacrificial victim, then Abraham is not only the father of the nations (Genesis 17:5; 22:17–18) but, as ‘parents of covenants’, so to speak, a type for Mary, the Mother of God.
de Voragine, Jacobus. 1993. The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints (Princeton: Princeton University Press)
Wasserman, Jack. 1995. 'Jacopo Pontormo’s Florentine “Visitation”: The Iconography', Artibus Et Historiae, 16: 39–53
Westergård, Ira. 2007. Approaching Sacred Pregnancy: The Cult of the Visitation and Narrative Altarpieces in Late Fifteenth-Century Florence (Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura)
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.”