Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Joyful Mysteries, The Second Joyful Mystery, The Visitation Part II – The Kneeling Elizabeth

Workshop of Goossen van der Weyden, The Visitation
Flemish, c.1516
London, National Gallery
“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.”

Luke 1:39-45

Mary’s visit to her relative, Elizabeth, shortly after having given her assent to God’s request that she give birth to Jesus, is the event that we call the Visitation, the second decade of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary.  Most of us are most familiar with the central portion of Luke’s account of the visit, in which Elizabeth acknowledges Mary’s status and adds the second phrase of the Hail Mary prayer “and blessed is the fruits of your womb” to the first part, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you”, which is the way in which the Angel Gabriel greeted Mary.  The remaining essays that will look at the iconography of the Visitation will focus on these few lines and on the ways in which artists have represented the words of the text visually.

The first variation on the simple greeting (which we looked at here) is the motif of the kneeling Elizabeth.  Although the words of Saint Luke do not indicate any kind of movement for Elizabeth, it is easy to imagine her raising her hands, or holding out her arms, or even kneeling to acknowledge “the mother of my Lord”. 

It does not seem to have been until the fourteenth century that artists began to deviate from the simple greeting motif, in which the women met as equals, generally in a standing posture.  The earliest image I have found in which Elizabeth kneels comes from around 1380, attributed to the Master of the Parement de Narbonne, an altar frontal commissioned by the King Charles V of France, now in the Louvre.  The manuscript comes from the library of that great manuscript connoisseur, the Prince Jean, Duc de Berry, the man who commissioned the famous Tres Riches Heures and many other books besides.  So, the work in question is a luxury manuscript, produced for an influential, highly cultured man at the highest levels of French (and European) society.  Jean de Berry was the son of King Jean II and brother of King Charles V of France, as well as brother to the equally famous Philip the Bold, founder of the dynasty of the Dukes of Burgundy, who ruled what became virtually a third country, poised between France and the Holy Roman Empire and including some of the most productive areas of medieval Europe, the provinces which became the current countries of Holland and Belgium. 

Master of the Paremont of Narbonne, The Visitation
from the Tres Belles Heures of Notre-Dame de Jean de Berry
French (Paris), c.1380
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 3093, fol. 28
In this first manuscript Mary and Elizabeth are represented as being indoors, in a room with a tiled floor, a wood beam ceiling and high windows above walls covered in cloth hangings.  An exterior door, fitted with iron hinges stands behind Mary and an open door stands behind Elizabeth.  Therefore, we are meant to read the space as a reception room in Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home.  This is carefully in keeping with the Gospel, which says that Mary “entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth” (Luke 1:40).  Elizabeth has sunk to one knee before Mary and gestures upward with open arms.  Framed between her extended hands is Mary’s left hand, which rests protectively on her stomach.  The gestures of both women, therefore, call our attention to the precious Presence taking human flesh within Mary.  This gesture of Elizabeth will be repeated in virtually all the Visitation images in which Elizabeth kneels.  Her kneeling may, therefore, be read not as honoring Mary, but in honoring the forming Jesus. 

Interestingly, this same image is part of a total page, which tells much of the Incarnation story.  The letter D below the main image contains a tiny image of the Holy Family, of Mary and Jesus with St. Joseph.  At the bottom of the page the Angel Gabriel announces the coming birth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, and Mary and Joseph are seen approaching Bethlehem. 

Jacquemart de Hesdin (or the Pseudo-Jacquemart), The Visitation
from Petites heures de Jean de Berry
French (Bourges), 1385-1390
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 18014, fol. 206

This image may have influenced another manuscript painter also working for Duc Jean de Berry.  This artist, identified as Jacquemart de Hesdin or another, related, painter known as Pseudo-Jacquemart, produced another prayer book for the duke about five years later.  In this image of the Visitation, the figures of Mary and Elizabeth are posed very similarly.  But they are set in a landscape out of doors.  A further variation is that instead of placing her left hand on her stomach, Mary holds a book in her right hand, calling our attention to her anatomy in a less obvious way, while placing her left hand around Elizabeth’s shoulders.  Elizabeth’s gesture is still one of veneration of the Holy Child within. 

From the foundation of these two pictures all the rest of the images of the kneeling Elizabeth spring.1 

The Boucicaut Master, The Visitation
from a Book of Hours
French (Paris), 1400-1425
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Additional 16997, fol. 45v

Attributed to the Egerton Master, The Visitation
from the Hours of Rene of Anjou
French (Paris), c.1410
London, British Library
MS Egerton 1070, fol. 29v

Dieric Bouts the Elder, The Visitation
from Scenes from the Life of the Virgin
Dutch, c.1445
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
Luca della Robbia, The Visitation
Italian, c. 1445
Pistoia, Church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas

Follower of Master of Jean Rolin, The Visitation
from a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1450
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 74 F 1, fol. 53r

Follower of Jean Fouquet, The Visitation
from a Book of Hours
French (Tours), c. 1470
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 74 G28, fol. 33v

Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Visitation
Italian, 1491
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Francesco Granacci, Scenes from the Life of Saint John the Baptist
Italian, c.1506-1507
New  York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jacopo Pontormo, The Visitation
Italian, 1514-1516
Florence, Church of Santissima Annunziata

Juan Correa de Vivar, The Visitation
Spanish, c.1535
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

The Visitation
from the Hours of Francois II
French, 1555
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 104, fol. 39

Tommaso Manzuoli, The Visitation
Italian, c.1560
Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum

Peter Paul Rubens, The Visitation
Flemish, 1611-1612
Strasbourg, Musée des Beaux-Arts
 The Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is May 31st.

See also:  The Simple Greeting
                 Acts of Blessing
                 Visible Babies
                  The Magnificat

© M. Duffy, 2017

1.  For an interpretation of one of them, that by Pontormo for the atrium of the church of the Santissima Annunziata in Florence, see Wasserman, Jack.  Jacopo Pontormo's Florentine "Visitation": The Iconography, Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 16, No. 32 (1995), pp. 39-53.

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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