Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Joyful Mysteries, The Second Joyful Mystery, The Visitation Part III – Acts of Blessing

The Visitation
from Hours of Louis de Savoie
French (Savoy), 1445-1450
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9473, fol. 34

“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 1:40-45

Elizabeth’s reaction and that of her unborn son to the arrival of Mary with her own unborn son is one of the most joyful moments of the Gospels.  Elizabeth and her baby, John the Baptist, know what has happened to Mary and react to the Presence of her baby, Jesus.

We have seen previously that the Visitation event has been imagined primarily as the simple meeting between the women, who affectionately and joyfully greet each other.  We have also seen that some painters chose to imagine Elizabeth kneeling in welcome and adoration to the Presence that Mary carries within her.  The next category that we will look at goes a little further.  Elizabeth places her hand on Mary’s stomach, to honor the unborn life she carries.  Mary often reciprocates by placing one of her hands on Elizabeth’s stomach or by raising her hand in a blessing directed toward the unborn John.

Alabaster Panel Carver, The Visitation
English, 15th Century
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

This motif, not surprisingly, rose rather later than some others and seemed to be used for only about 100 years, disappearing, as so many other motifs did, during the cataclysm of the Reformation and the Catholic Reform that followed it.

Boucicaut Master, The Visitation
from the Hours of Jeanne Bessonnnelle
French (Paris), 1400-1425
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 1161, fol. 55v
Fastolf Master, The Visitation
from the Hours of William Porter
French (Rouen), 1415-1430
New  York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M105, fol. 92r

Master of Marguerite d'Orleans, The Visitation
from the Hours of Marguerite d'Orleans
French (Rennes), c.1430
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 1156, fol. 58
Jacques Daret, The Visitation with a Donor
French, 1434-1435
Berlin, Gemaeldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Rogier van der Weyden, The Visitation
Flemish, c.1445
Leipzig, Museum der bildenden Kunste
Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden, The Nativity Polyptych
Flemish, c.1450
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection
This multi-paneled polyptych shows the relation of the Visitation scene in this type of work.  Somewhat unusual in this particular work is the inclusion of the scene of Augustus learning of the birth of Jesus from the Cumean Sibyl and the imposition of the figure of the Infant Jesus in the star of the Three Magi.
Master of the Dresden Prayer Book, The Visitation and other scenes from both the Birth of Christ and of John the Baptist
from the Spinola Hours
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1510-1520
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS Ludwig IX 18, fol. 109

One of the later images has some interesting side issues, as it appears in a work that is more oriented toward retrospection and memorial than are the other, more illustrative, examples.
Master of the Spec Nostra, Four Canons with Saints Augustine and Jerome with the Visitation
Dutch, c.1500
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

This image, now in the Rijksmuseum, is known as the Four Canons with Saints Augustine and Jerome by an Open Grave, with the Visitation, and is painted by an as-yet-unidentified, presumably Dutch, painter around the year 1500.1  It is almost like two paintings of different subjects have been brought together.  In the mid-ground Mary and Elizabeth sit together on the edge of what appears to be a sunken garden.  Elizabeth places her hand on Mary’s stomach, in the same gesture we have seen in other images of this type.  In the background on the left we see into the future, where Mary sits at the base of a tree while the infant Jesus plays with a broomstick hobby horse under the care of an angel, while three other angels serenade the group.  In the right background two women walk, one facing us and one with her back to us.  Peacocks can be seen on both sides of the background.

The foreground is entirely different.  There we are confronted by four men, wearing the garb of canons regular of the Augustinian order, knee beside an open grave, two on each side.  Behind each group of two is one of the saints named in the title.  Saint Jerome, wearing his anomalous cardinal’s attire and accompanied by his lion (in this case, almost a toy lion) stands behind the two canons on the left.  Saint Augustine, in bishop’s attire and holding the offering of his heart in his right hand and his crozier in the left, stands behind the group at the right.  Between each of the groups is the open grave, inhabited by a partially decomposed body.  The gravestone, which has been rolled away on wooden rollers that are visible, bears the inscription “Requiescant in pace” (May they rest in peace), taken from the short prayer for the dead which ends “May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace.  Amen.”  The prayer is not for a specific person, but for all the dead.

Below the grave is written two lines of Latin text.  The first is a memento mori prayer (You who pass by, behold and lament).  The second line is a form of the well-known saying “As I am you shall be, as you are I was” expressed here as “Sum quod eris quod es ipse fui pro me precor ora” (“I am what thou shall be, what thou art I have been; pray for me, I beseech thee”). 

This is a highly unusual and very thoughtful painting.  The thought seems to be that remembering the dead in prayer will assist them, as the Church teaches, to shorten their penance in Purgatory, as well as to confront the living onlooker with the need for prayer for oneself as well as for the dead, for as we are they once were and as they are we shall be.  We need preparation for the afterlife.  And the afterlife itself, salvation and the fulfillment of the promise are also presented through the presence of the image of the pregnant Mary and Elizabeth in the immediate mid-ground and the paradise garden of the background, where the Infant Jesus is free to play and where, peacocks, the image of the immortal soul stroll the gardens.

See also:  The Simple Greeting
                 The Kneeling Elizabeth
                  Visible Babies
                  The Magnificat

© M. Duffy, 2017

For a discussion with additional bibliography see:  Ubl, Matthias.  'The Office of the Dead': a New Interpretation of the Spes Nostra Painting, The Rijksmuseum Bulletin, Vol. 61, No. 4 (2013), pp. 322-337.

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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