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Legends of the Madonna - The Visitation

( Originally Published 1895 )



Ital. La Visitazione di Maria. Fr. La Visitation de la Vierge. Ger. Die Heimsuchung Maria. (July 2.)

After the annunciation of the angel, the Scripture goes on to relate how " Mary arose and went up into the hill country with haste, to the house of her cousin Elizabeth, and saluted her." This meeting of the two kinswomen is the subject styled in Art the " Visitation," and sometimes the " Salutation of Elizabeth." It is of considerable importance, in a series of the life of the Virgin, as an event ; and also, when taken separately in its religious significance, as being the first recognition of the character of the Messiah. " Whence is this to me," exclaims Elizabeth, " that the mother of my Lord should come to me ? " (Luke i. 43) ; and as she spoke this through the influence of the Holy Spirit, and not through knowledge, she is considered in the light of a prophetess.

Of Elizabeth I must premise a few words, because in many representations relating to the life of the Virgin, and particularly in those domestic groups, the Holy Families properly so called, she is a personage of great importance, and we ought to be able, by some preconceived idea of her bearing and character, to test the propriety of that impersonation usually adopted by the artists. We must remember that she was much older than her cousin, a woman " well stricken in years ; " but it is a great mistake to represent her as old, as wrinkled and decrepit, as some painters have done. We are told that she was righteous before-the Lord, "walking in all his commandments blameless : " the manner in which she received the visit of Mary, acknowledging with a glad humility the higher destinies of her young relative, shows her to have been free from all envy and jealousy. Therefore all pictures of Elizabeth should exhibit her as an elderly, but not an aged matron ; a dignified, mild, and gracious creature ; one selected to high honor by the Searcher of hearts, who, looking down on hers, had beheld it pure from any secret taint of selfishness, even as her conduct had been blameless before man.

Such a woman as we believe Mary to have been must have loved and honored such a woman as Elizabeth. Wherefore, having heard that Elizabeth had been exalted to a miraculous motherhood, she made haste to visit her, not to ask her advice for being graced with all good gifts of the Holy Spirit, and herself the mother of Wisdom, she could not need advice but to sympathize with her cousin and reveal what had happened to herself.

Thus then they met, " these two mothers of two great princes, of whom one was pronounced the greatest born of women, and the other was his Lord : " happiest and most exalted of all womankind before or since, " needs must they have discoursed like seraphim and the most ecstasied order of Intelligences !" Such was the blessed encounter represented in the Visitation.

The number of the figures, the locality, and circumstances, vary greatly. Sometimes we have only the two women, without accessories of any kind, and nothing interferes with the high solemnity of that moment in which Elizabeth confesses the mother of her Lord. The better to express this willing homage, this momentous prophecy, she is often kneeling. Other figures are frequently introduced, because it could not be supposed that Mary made the journey from Nazareth to the dwelling of Zacharias near Jerusalem, a distance of fifty miles, alone. Whether her husband Joseph accompanied her is doubtful ; and while many artists have introduced him, others have omitted him altogether. According to the ancient Greek formula laid down for the religious painters, Mary is accompanied by a servant or a boy, who carries a stick across his shoulder, and a basket slung to it. The old Italians who followed the Byzantine models seldom omit this attendant, but in some instances (as in the magnificent composition of Michael Angelo 1) a handmaid bearing a basket on her head is substituted for the boy. In many instances Joseph, attired as a traveller, appears behind the Virgin, and Zacharias, in his priestly turban and costume, behind Elizabeth.

The locality is often an open porch or a garden in front of a house ; and this garden of Zacharias is celebrated in Eastern tradition. It is related that the blessed Virgin, during her residence with her cousin Elizabeth, frequently recreated her-self by walking in the garden of Zacharias, whilst she meditated on the strange and lofty destiny to which she was appointed ; and further, that happening one day to touch a certain flower, which grew there, with her most blessed hand, from being inodorous before, it became from that moment deliciously fragrant. The garden, therefore, was a fit place for the meeting.

1. The earliest representation of the Visitation to which I can refer is a rude but not ungraceful drawing, in the catacombs at Rome, of two women embracing. It is not of very high antiquity, perhaps the seventh or eighth century, but there can be no doubt about the subject. (Cemetery of Julius : vide Bosio, Roma Sotterana.)

2. Cimabue has followed the Greek formula, and his simple group appears to me to have great feeling and simplicity.

3. More modern instances, from the date of the revival of Art, abound in every form. Almost every painter who has treated subjects from the life of the Virgin has treated the Visitation. In the composition by Raphael, in the Madrid Gallery, there are the two figures only ; and I should object in this otherwise perfect picture to the bashful conscious look of the Virgin Mary. The heads are, however, eminently beautiful and dignified. In the far background is seen the baptism of Christ very happily and significantly introduced, not merely as expressing the name of the votary who dedicated the picture, Giovan-Battista Branconio, but also as expressing the relation between the two unborn children, the Christ and his prophet.

4. The group by Sebastian del Piombo is singularly grand, showing in every part the influence of Michael Angelo, but richly colored in Sebastian's best manner. The figures are seen only to the knees. In the background, Zacharias is seen hurrying down some steps to receive the Virgin.'

5. The group by Pinturicchio, with the attendant angels, is remarkable for its poetic grace ; and this, by Lucas v. Ley, den, is equally remarkable for affectionate sentiment.

6. Still more beautiful, and more dramatic and varied, is another composition by Pinturicchio in the Sala Borgia. (Vatican, Rome.) The Virgin and St. Elizabeth, in the centre, take each other's hands. Behind the Virgin are St. Joseph, a maiden with a basket on her head, and other attendants. Be-hind St. Elizabeth we have a view into the interior of her house, through arcades richly sculptured; and within, Zacharias is reading, and the handmaids of Elizabeth are spinning and sewing. This elegant fresco was painted for Alexander VI.

7. There is a fine picture of this subject by Andrea Sabatini of Salerno, the history of which is rather curious. " It was painted at the request of the Sanseverini, princes of Salerno, to be presented to a nunnery in which one of that noble family had taken the veil. Under the form of the blessed Virgin, Andrea represented the last princess of Salerno, who was of the family of Villa Marina ; under that of St. Joseph, the prince her husband ; an old servant of the family figures as St. Elizabeth ; and in the features of Zacharias we recognize those of Bernardo Tasso, the father of Torquato Tasso, and then secretary to the prince of Salerno. After remaining for many years over the high altar of the church, it was re-moved through the scruples of one of the Neapolitan arch bishops, who was scandalized by the impropriety of placing the portraits of well-known personages in such a situation." The picture, once removed from its place, disappeared, and by some means found its way to the Louvre. Andrea, who was one of the most distinguished of the scholars of Raphael, died in 1545.1

8. The composition by Rubens has all that scenic effect and dramatic movement which was characteristic of the painter. The meeting takes place on a flight of steps leading to the house of Zacharias. The Virgin wears a hat, as one just arrived from a journey ; Joseph and Zacharias greet each other; a maiden with a basket on her head follows ; and in the fore-ground a man unloads the ass. [Antwerp cathedral.]

I will mention two other examples, each perfect in its way, in two most opposite styles of treatment.

9. The first is the simple majestic composition of Albertinelli, in the Ufpizi, Florence. The two women, standing alone under a richly sculptured arch, and relieved against the bright azure sky, embrace each other. There are no accessories. Mary is attired in dark blue drapery, and Elizabeth wears an ample robe of a saffron or rather amber color. The mingled grandeur, power, and grace, and depth of expression in these two figures, are quite extraordinary ; they look like what they are, and worthy to be mothers of the greatest of kings and the greatest of prophets. Albertinelli has here emulated his friend Bartolommeo his friend, whom he so loved, that when, after the horrible execution of Savonarola, Bartolommeo, broken-hearted, threw himself into the convent of St. Mark, Albertinelli became almost distracted and desperate. He would certainly, says Vasari, have gone into the same convent, but for the hatred he bore the monks, " of whom he was always saying the most injurious things."

Through some hidden influence of intense sympathy, Albertinelli, though in point of character the very antipodes of his friend, often painted so like him, that his pictures and this noble picture more particularly might be mistaken for the work of the Frate.

10. We will now turn to a conception altogether different, and equally a masterpiece ; it is the small but exquisitely finished composition by Rembrandt. (Grosvenor Gallery, London.) The scene is the garden in front of the house of Zacharias ; Elizabeth is descending the steps in haste to receive and embrace with outstretched arms the Virgin Mary, who appears to have just alighted from her journey. The aged Zacharias, supported by a youth, is seen following Elizabeth to welcome their guest. Behind Mary stands a black female attendant, in -the act of removing a mantle from her shoulders; in the background a servant, or (as I think) Joseph holds the ass on which Mary has journeyed ; a peacock with a gem-like train, and a hen with a brood of chickens (the latter the emblem of maternity), are in the foreground. Though the representation thus conceived appears like a scene of everyday life, nothing can be more poetical than the treatment, more intensely true and noble than the expression of the diminutive figures, more masterly and finished than the execution, more magical and lustrous than the effect of the whole. The work of Albertinelli, in its large and solemn beauty and religious significance, is worthy of being placed over an altar, on which we might offer up the work of Rembrandt as men offer incense, gems, and gold.

As the Visitation is not easily mistaken, I have said enough of it here ; and we pass to the next subject.



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