Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Joyful Mysteries, The Second Joyful Mystery, The Visitation Part IV – Visible Babies

Anonymous, The Visitation With Visible Children
Czech, 1430
Prague, National Gallery of Prague
“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, Excerpt from the Gospel for the Feast of the Visitation, May 31

The images which I will explore in this essay are probably, to the modern point of view, extremely odd and, perhaps a bit shocking.  We tend to think of our ancestors in previous centuries as not as smart as ourselves, with faulty understanding of anatomy and other things medical and scientific (not realizing that a. Our ancestors thought of themselves as thoroughly modern and up-to-date scientific also, and b. our own descendants of 100-200 years or more will think of us in exactly the same way, as benightedly ignorant). 

Anonymous, The Visitation with Visible Children
German, c.1440
Munich, Bayerisches Nationalmuseum
However, our ancestors had a pretty good understanding of how things worked in the practical sense, though they may not have understood them scientifically.  They knew that babies were formed somewhere in the bodies of their mothers, in the region of the stomach, and that they came out through the birth canal.  They may not have been entirely clear, perhaps, about what part of the act of procreation caused this, or exactly what came together through it, but they were pretty clear about the results.  And they had a pretty good idea of what things looked like inside, since they knew animals had a similar system for producing offspring and occasionally saw the unborn when butchering a cow or ewe that had died before giving birth.  So, they were not as naïve about this as we might think.

Still, it is often surprising to modern people that they were quite frank about the “facts of birth” when it comes to a group of images of the Visitation produced during the Middle Ages.  These surprising images show Mary and Elizabeth meeting, just as the types of Visitation images we have already looked at.  However, they show something else as well.  They show the two unborn children meeting and they show that, even as unborn babies in the wombs of their mothers, John the Baptist pays homage to his baby cousin as he would in his adult life.

Great Panagia
Russian, 1200-1240
Moscow, The State Tretyakov Galler

The ”visible baby” or “foetus” images which began to appear in the thirteenth century obviously owe their origins to a Byzantine/Russian Orthodox icon of the Virgin Mary known as the Mother of God of the Sign, also called the Panagia or Platyera images.  These Orthodox images show Mary standing in the orant position, with her hands raised in praise, with an image of the Infant Jesus in a mandorla in front of her chest.  These images signify the moment of the Incarnation, in which the Holy Spirit implants the Divine Presence within her and the body of the Infant Jesus begins to form. 
Icon of the Mother of God The Word Was Made Flesh
The Albazin Icon
Russian, Before 1665

In the West, however, with its more naturalistic artistic attitude, this image was used in several ways.  It could be used similarly to its use in the East, to invoke the Blessed Virgin as a sympathic and powerful intercessor.1  

Bartolomeo Buon, Virgin and Child with Kneeling Members  of the Guild of the Misericordia
Italian, c. 1445-1450
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Its most frequent use was in devotional images of the Visitation where another object was in view.  In the West it appears never to have been used for the iconography of the Annunciation, as it is in the East.  We have examined the Annunciation images in great detail and those all focus on the actions of the Angel Gabriel and of the Holy Spirit and the response of Mary. 
Workshop of Robert Campin, The Annunciation
Center Panel of the Merode Altarpiece
Flemish, c. 1427-1432
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection
Workshop of Robert Campin
Detail View of Central Panel of the Merode Altarpiece
Flemish, c. 1427-1432
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection

The closest image we can find in the West to the Orthodox idea are those pictures of the Annunciation in which a tiny Jesus, sometimes carrying the cross, slides down a beam of light toward Mary.  One of the most famous of these images is from the Merode Altarpiece, located in the Cloisters branch of the Metropolitan Museum of New York.

In the West the iconography of Mary with a visible Child is used only for a small number of images of the Visitation, produced between the early thirteenth- and the mid-sixteenth centuries, primarily in Germanic speaking countries.  Since they are all images of the Visitation, they necessarily include the figure of St. Elizabeth, who was also pregnant, with Saint John the Baptist.  And, not surprisingly, the tiny figure of Saint John is also included, positioned like Jesus, in his mother’s stomach. 
Anonymous, The Visitation with Visible Children
Austrian, 1210
Nauders, Chapel of St. Leonard
In the earliest Western image I could find the babies are still shown, Eastern-style, as small figures within mandorlas on their mother’s chests, though slightly lower than typical for the Eastern images.  

Attributed to Master Heinrich of Constance
The Visitation with Rock Crystal Inserts
German, c.1310-1320
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is also where they are located on a delicately carved wooden sculptural set dated to the fourteenth century and attributed to Heinrich of Constance, now in the Metropolitan Museum.2  Here the figures include two inserts of rock crystal which originally covered painted images of the two babies, but are now blank. 

Attributed to Master Heinrich of Constance
The Visitation with Rock Crystal Inserts
German, c.1310-1320
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

By the fifteenth century, the images of the babies had moved lower, more naturalistically adhering to the location of the womb and in that location it remained. 

Along with the move downward, the figures of the babies began to assume postures that reflected their relative positions.  No doubt inspired by the reference to his ability to move through his joyful leap mentioned in the Gospel, Saint John was most frequently shown as kneeling, his tiny hands joined in prayer, as he faces his equally tiny cousin and Lord.  Jesus is most often shown seated or standing, with His hands raised in a gesture of blessing.  Even as unborn babies each knows who he is and who his cousin is.3  It is a pious reminder that, even unborn, life is seamless.

Antependium of Woven Silk, The Visitation
with Visible Children
Alsatian, c. 1410
Frankfurt-am-Main, Museum fuer Angewandte Kunst
Anonymous Sculptor, The Visitation with Visible Children
German, c. 1420
Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseums

Workshop of Konrad Witz, The Decree of Redemption
Swiss, c.1444
Berlin, Gemaeldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berliln

Anonymous, The Visitation with Visible Children
Austrian, c. 1460
Kremsmuenster, Kremsmuenster Abbey
Friedrich Herlin, The Visitation with Visible Children
German, 1462
Noerdlingen (DE), Stadtmuseum
Here the children are not shown.  Their presence is indicated by the use of stars, shown atop their mothers' clothing.  

Marx Reichlich, The Visitation with Visible Children
Austrian, c. 1500
Munich, Alte Pinakothek

Hans Strueb, The Visitation with Visible Children
German, c.1505
Madrid, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

Danube School, The Visitation with Visible Children
German, c.1530-1550
Cleveland, Museum of Art
This image is rather unusual in that, although it includes both babies, it places them outside in front of their mothers' bodies.

Marx Weiss the Elder, The Visitation with Visible Children
German, 1563
Ueberlingen, Sankt Nikolaus

Not surprisingly this rather offbeat, pious devotional image mostly disappeared under the weight of the Reformation and the responding seriousness with which the Catholic Reform that followed looked at religious iconography.  
Anton Hitzenthaler. The Visitation with Visible Symbols for the Children
Austrian, 18th Century
Maria Bruendl, Parish Church
In this surprisingly late version of the subject, the actual figures of the children have been replaced by their monograms.

However, recently, no doubt as a response to renewed discussion on the development of the child in the womb made urgent by the debates on abortion, there has been a renewed modern interest in this particular piece of iconography. 

Bradi Barth, The Visitation with Visible children
Swiss, c. 1960-2007

James B. Janknegt, The Visitation with Visible Children
American, 2007
  ©  James B. Jankegt
The feast of the Visitation is May 31st.

See also:  The Simple Greeting
                 The Kneeling Elizabeth
                 Acts of Blessing
                 The Magnificat

© M. Duffy, 2017

  1. Rosenau, Helen.  “A Study in the Iconography of the Incarnation”, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 85, No. 496 (Jul., 1944), pp. 172-179.
  2. Wixom, William. Medieval Sculpture at the Metropolitan, 800-1400, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Spring 2005, Volume LXII, Number 4, page 47.
  3. Verheyen, Egon.  “An Iconographic Note on Altdorfer's Visitation in the Cleveland Museum of Art”, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Dec., 1964), pp. 536-539.

Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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