So ‘filled with good things’ is the Visitation that it offers remarkable opportunities for artists exploring its possibilities.
There is the tender intimacy of the personal encounter between two kinswomen sharing an extraordinary experience of pregnancy. There are the unborn infants inspiring their mothers, prompting a desire to look through the veil of flesh concealing the Christ Child and his forerunner, to make visible the invisible divine. Some Visitations attend to typology, offering figural readings of narrative forms in the Old Testament from the perspective of the Incarnation of Christ. Then there are the contexts in which the Visitation is imagined, settings which work in conjunction with the women to create a place in which Christ’s imminent arrival takes effect. There are landscapes which, recalling the lost Eden, hold out the possibility of a return to grace through the fertile New Earth of the virginal Second Eve, high places of theophany, and buildings characterized by an emphasis on architectural features suggestive of revelation: doorways, steps, and parted curtains. In some Visitations the presence of the Holy Spirit is suggested energetically through dynamic movement, flapping veils, scudding clouds; in others it is explicit in the form of a dove, or showers of golden light. And in some there is a sense of the quickening of Creation, of something utterly new taking form in the dark, watery void, of the opening verses of Genesis echoing in a virgin’s womb.
The Pelendri mural offers the glimpse of the invisible divine, showing us Christ’s first meeting with John, establishing the kinship and the hierarchy between them. This ‘ultrasound’ vision (a foretaste of the many apocryphal images of Christ and John as children, with their mothers) is protected within the women’s warm embrace, and flanked by references to theophany in the landscape and buildings. Pontormo’s fresco shifts the emphasis to Mary, allowing us to see her in relation to Abraham and in her role as Ecclesia, the Ark, the Tabernacle. In a church dedicated to the Virgin Annunciate, a few yards from a miraculous image of Mary, this Visitation presents her within the continuity of salvation history, blessed even beyond Abraham, a woman so full of grace that she becomes the house of God. El Greco’s Visitation amplifies the gravitas of the women’s encounter, on the brink of joy and disaster. With its monumental figures, dark palette, and vivid highlighting, it presents the scene with the dramatic energy of an electric storm and seems to associate it with death as well as birth, with rupture as well as gestation.
In all three works, the women unashamedly occupy centre stage. Where depictions of Eve have, arguably, reinforced androcentric views of women, the Visitation offers another bite of the apple. These images relocate women who were socially, religiously, marginal—the one supposedly beyond maternal usefulness, the other unmarried—to the centre. They assert a female, physical, recognition of goodness which contrasts with the post-lapsarian distortion of human physicality, and looks ahead to the New Creation. Wisdom, prophecy, and praise speak from within the female body. And, where the Annunciation is a personal, essentially interior event, the Visitation expands that interiority through encounter with others, often moving to an outdoor setting. Elizabeth and the unborn John are the first to proclaim Christ’s presence: the first evangelists of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Up steps, through doorways, and from the heights, these three images invite the viewer to stand at the threshold of the Visitation and, from its vantage point, look backwards through Old Testament precursors, to the first sin, and as far as Creation; and forwards, through Christ to the New Creation. Its beginnings are felt here because the Visitation, in its pregnant, threshold state of ‘already and not yet’, also makes possible the post-resurrection life into which Christians believe they are reborn in baptism. Artists depicting the Visitation have drawn attention to its typological origins, its miraculous present, and its living, vital, anticipation of the future, in dynamic, tender, surprising, and richly associative ways, telescoping into one image the generations of God’s encounter with his people, past, present, and future and showing, in myriad ways, that transformation has been conceived, that its effects are already felt, but that it has not yet been born.
Beattie, Tina. 2002. God's Mother, Eve's Advocate: A Marian Narrative of Women's Salvation (London: Continuum)
———. 2007. 'Mary in Patristic Theology’, in Mary: The Complete Resource, ed. by Sarah Jane Boss (London: Continuum)
Boss, Sarah Jane (ed.). 2007. Mary: The Complete Resource (London: Continuum)