Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Joyful Mysteries, The Second Joyful Mystery, The Visitation Part I – The Simple Greeting

Master of the Trinity, Annunciation of the Birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah
from the Petites heures de Jean de Berry
French (Bourges), c. 1385-1390
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 18014, fol. 203
“In the days of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah of the priestly division of Abijah; his wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.
Both were righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly.
But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years.
Once when he was serving as priest in his division’s turn before God,
according to the practice of the priestly service, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense.
Then, when the whole assembly of the people was praying outside at the hour of the incense offering,
the angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right of the altar of incense.
Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and fear came upon him.
But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John.
And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth,
for he will be great in the sight of [the] Lord. He will drink neither wine nor strong drink.  He will be filled with the holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb,
and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.
He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.”
Then Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
And the angel said to him in reply, “I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news.
But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time.”
Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah and were amazed that he stayed so long in the sanctuary.
But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He was gesturing to them but remained mute.
Then, when his days of ministry were completed, he went home.
After this time his wife Elizabeth conceived, and she went into seclusion for five months, saying,
“So has the Lord done for me at a time when he has seen fit to take away my disgrace before others.”

Then follows the story of the Annunciation to Mary that she will become the mother of Jesus.  This Annunciation is also made by Gabriel, who concludes his announcement with news of Elizabeth. 

“And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah,
where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit,
cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

Mary responds with the Magnificat and this portion of the Gospel concludes:

“Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.”

Luke I: 5-25, 36-56

The Visitation
from a Psalter
French (Saint-Omer), End of  the13th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Smith-Lesoueef 20, fol. 8v
So much emphasis has been placed over the centuries on the Annunciation portion of the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, that the beauty and significance of the encounter of the near-term Elizabeth and the newly pregnant Mary has often been overlooked.  But, I suggest that they are actually essential to each other for us to gain an insight into what is being said.  Artists too have been affected by the predominance of the Annunciation part of the story.   While there are thousands and thousands of images of the Annunciation, the number of images of the Visitation, while numerous, are far less frequent. 

However, as we can see from the edited quotation above, the two stories are deeply interwoven.  Among other things:  Mary is Elizabeth’s relative (the precise degree of relationship is not specified, but has traditionally been described as cousins); like other holy women of the past (Sarah, wife of Abraham, for instance) Elizabeth is described as both barren and old; Gabriel, the same angel who brings the surprising request to Mary, announces the birth of a son to a doubting Zechariah;  after Zechariah returns home, Elizabeth finally conceives (by natural means in spite of her age and former barren condition); she then goes into seclusion for five months. 

Luke’s account of the Annunciation begins “In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth” (Luke 1:26).  I (and I will bet most people who read this part of the Gospel in connection with the Annunciation itself) have always assumed that the six months referred to equates to six months from the beginning of the year, which in the Hebrew reckoning of time would amount to late March or early April, six months from the period of the High Holy Days which fall in late September or early October.  However, read together with the story of the birth of John the Baptist, it clearly refers to the timing of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.  It is her sixth month that is being referred to, not the calendar. 
Master Francois, The Visitation
from a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c.1460-1470
London, British Library
MS Egerton 2045, fol. 62v

This places Mary’s pregnancy in a slightly different setting, tying the two women and their babies together more closely, because the one is timed to the other.  The Gospel also says that, having heard from Gabriel about Elizabeth’s condition, Mary quickly went to her, traveling from Galilee to Judea.  When she arrived Elizabeth’s baby jumped for joy within her, causing her to proclaim her own feelings and understanding of what has happened to her younger relative. 

Mary, we are told, remained there for three months, or until the birth of John the Baptist.  She then returns home, now three months pregnant herself, to face the confusion of Joseph, her betrothed, and then her marriage, the journey to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus. 
The Pictorial Record
The meeting between the two women is a moment of great joy and exaltation.  However, this is only intermittently obvious in the pictorial record, as we will see.  In my preparatory survey for this essay I collected just about 100 pictures of the Visitation over a period spanning the eleventh to the twentieth centuries from the sources that are available currently.  No doubt there are many more that exist, but which are not yet available online. 

Among the 100 I found that there are several themes which can be identified and I will split the commentary up along those lines, so as not to overwhelm.  However, one theme is more dominant than the others and, thus, has pride of place.  This is what I call “The Simple Greeting”, that is where Elizabeth welcomes Mary in a simple and straightforward manner. 

The earliest images of this type, which are also the earliest images I was able to collect, come from the southern region of Italy, a location that, though independent of the Byzantine Empire nevertheless was heavily influenced by the large Byzantine presence in the region.  

Ivory plaque with the Visitation
Italian, 1001-1200
Salerno_Museo Diocesano San Matteo

Another, comes from twelfth-century Palestine, another area of significant, lingering Byzantine influence, in spite of the encroachment of Muslim states in Syria and what is today Turkey. 

The Visitation
from the Melisande Psalter
Palestine (Jerusalem), 1131-1143
London, British Library
MS Egerton 1139, fol. 1v
The influence of the simple Byzantine style greeting motif continues through the twelfth century.  
The Visitation
Portion of the Typanum
French, 1130s
Vezelay, Basilica of St. Mary Magdalen 

Bonannus, The Visitation
Italian, 1187
Pisa, Church of Santa Maria Assunta

The Visitation
from a Picture Bible
French (Saint-Omer, Abbey of St. Bertin), c.1190-1200
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F 5, fol. 10v

The Visitation
French, 1211-1225
Reims, Cathedral

In the early 13th century, however, it merges with a new, more classically aware strain that flows from the portals of Reims Cathedral to the doors of the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral and beyond.   

It is the image most of us recognize as “the Visitation”, two women, one younger than the other, meeting at the center of the picture with more or less formality.  They may embrace, or kiss, or simply hold each other by the hand.

The Visitation
French, c.1252
Chartres, Cathedral
Nicola Pisano, The Visitation
Italian, 1265-1268
Siena, Cathedral

The Visitation
Italian, c. 1300-1350
Orvieto, Cathedral
Giotto, The Visitation
Italian, 1306
Padua, Scrovegni/Arena Chapel

Giotto and Assistants, The Visitation
Italian, 1315-1320
Assisi, Basilica of San Francesco
Ivory plaque, The Visitation
North French (Meuse Valley), c.1325-1350
New  York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Andrea Pisano, The Visitation
Italian, 1330
Florence, Baptistery

Melchior Broederlam, The Visitation
Flemish, c, 1393-1399
Dijon, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Workshop of the Boucicaut Master, The Visitation
from a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1415-1425
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M1000, fol.60r

Paolo Schiavo, The Visitation
Italian, Late 1420s-Early 1430s
Philadelphia, Museum of Art
Fra Angelico, The Visitation
Italian, c. 1433-1434
Cortona, Museo Diocesano
The Visitation
from Tapestry of Four Scenes from the
Life of the Virgin
Swiss, 1450-1475
Glasgow, Glasgow Museums, Burrell Collection 
Michele Giambono, The Visitation
Italian, c.1451
Venice, Basilica di San Marco, Mascoli Chapel

With varying amounts of narrative detail included in the images, and a greater number of subsidiary figures, this is the strain that has dominated the largest number of images of the Visitation up through the mid-twentieth century. Among the subsidiary figures one can find:  Zechariah, of course, but also, Joseph, assorted saints, Old Testament prophets, New Testament evangelists, serving maids and men, onlookers from different eras, donors, angels and allegorical figures, as well as, in some paintings, figures who seem to be totally unrelated to the scene.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Visitation
Italian, c. 1486-1490
Florence, Church of Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel
Piero di Cosimo, The Visitation with Saint Nicholas and Saint Anthony Abbot
Italian, c.1489-1490
Washington, National Gallery of Art, Samuel H. Kress Collection

Attributed to Alexander-Bening, The Visitation
Single Leaf from a Book of Hours
Flemish, c.1490
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G 10
Jean Poyer, The Visitation
from Hours of Henry VIII
French (Tours), c. 1495-1505
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS H8, fol.40v
Jean Bourdichon, The Visitation
from the Hours of Frederic d'Aragon
French (Tours), c. 1501-1504
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 10532, fol. 120
Jean Bourdichon, The Visitation
from Grandes heures d'Anne de Bretagne
French (Tours), c. 1503-1508
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9474, fol. 36v

Vittore Carpaccio, The Visitation
Italian, c. 1504-06
Venice, Galleria Franchetti, Ca d'oro
Mariotto Albertinelli, The Visitation
Italian, 1503
Florence, Gallerie degli' Uffizi
Master MS, The Visitation
Hungarian, 1506
Budapest, Magyar Nemzeti Galeria

Master of the Ango Hours, The Visitation
from a Prayer Book
French (Rouen), c. 1515-1525
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 83, fol. 23v
Giulio Romano and Giovanni Francesco Penni. The Visitation
Italian, c.1517
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Sebastiano del Piombo, The Visitation
Italian, 1521
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Jacopo Pontormo, The Visitation
Italian, 1528-1529
Carmignano, Church of San Michele

Francesco Salviati, The Visitation
Italian, 1538
Rome, Oratory of San Giovanni Decollato
Giulio Clovio, The Visitation and the Meeting of Justice and Peace
from the Farnese Hours
Italian, 1546
New  York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M69, fol.17v-18r
Tintoretto, The Visitation
Italian, c.1549
Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale
Pellegrino Tebaldi, The Visitation with Saints Joseph and Jerome
Italian, c. 1550-1560
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Federico Barocci, The Visitation
Italian, c. 1583-1586
Rome, Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella
Tintoretto, The Visitation
Italian, c.1588
Venice, Scuola di San Rocco
Peter Paul Rubens, The Visitation
Flemish, 1606-1608
Rome, Galleria Borghese
El Greco, The Visitation
Greco-Spanish, c. 1610-1613
Washington, Dumbarton Oaks Collection

Peter Paul Rubens, The Visitation
Flemish, c. 1611-1613
London, Courtauld Gallery
Guercino, The Visitation
Italian, 1632
Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts

The LeNain Brothers (Mathieu and Antoine), The Visitation
French, c.1650
Saint-Denis de Pile, Church of Saint Denis
Michel Corneille, the Elder, The Visitation
French, c.1650
Blois, Musédes Beaux-Arts

David Teniers, The Visitation
Dutch, c.1651-1660
Glasgow, Museums Resource Center
Willem van Herp the Elder, The Visitation
Flemish, 1659
Private Collection
Luca Giordano, The Visitation
Italian, c,1670
London, Guildhall Art Gallery
Michelangelo Unterberger, The Visitation
Austrian, c.1740
Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts
Ubaldo Gandolfi, The Visitation
Italian, c.1767
Private Collection
Toward the middle of the nineteenth century the tendency to overpopulate the scene diminished and artists once more focused on the simple meeting of two women, each the mother of a very special son.

Carl Heinrich Bloch, The Visitation
Danish, 1865-1879
Frederiksborg, Palace Chapel
James Tissot, The Visitation
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum

Maurice Denis, The Visitation
French, 1894
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
Odilon Redon, The Visitation
French, c.1900
Paris, Musée d'Orsay

Mario Toppi, The Visitation
Italian, Before 1953
Cleveland, Museum of Art
By the mid-twentieth century attention was once again firmly focused on the figures of Mary and Elizabeth.

The Visitation
Austrian, 1960
Augsburg, Church of Saint John Bosco

The Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is May 31st.

See also:  The Kneeling Elizabeth
                 Acts of Blessing
                 Visible Babies
                 The Magnificat

© M. Duffy, 2017

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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