Bump to bump they stand: Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, both pregnant, both apple-cheeked and glowing as expectant mothers should be. It is a moment of shared joy. The whispered intimacy of ‘I’m pregnant!’ ‘Me, too!’ Joseph and Zacharias stand sheepish in the background, as men do on such occasions. Joseph has more reason than most to feel left out. The baby isn’t his in the conventional sense. Zacharias has the look of a man overtaken by events. After so many ‘barren’ years, here is Elizabeth, pregnant and beaming with the future John the Baptist.
The Visitation, the moment of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth in Judea to share the news of her pregnancy, is perhaps the loveliest image in the cycle of devotional paintings known as the Joys of the Virgin. Falling between the artistically more popular scenes of the Annunciation (Angel Gabriel, ray of divine light, holy dove, bashful, slender Virgin) and the Adoration (shepherds, magi, stars, tumbledown stable, ox, ass, newborn baby), the Visitation is less often chosen as a subject.
The artists who did choose it invest their Visitations with quiet grace. There is none of the fanfare of Gabriel, the pomp of the magi, or the bumpkin awe of the shepherds. It is an unusually feminine scene in the life of Mary. Joseph and Zacharias are absent more often than they are present. Sometimes Mary and Elizabeth embrace, sometimes they stand apart, sizing up each other’s bumps, happy and hormonal.
The Feast of the Visitation is celebrated on 31 May. Elizabeth would have been more than six months’ pregnant with John, and Jesus two months incarnate in Mary’s womb. In the sculpted Visitation of Reims Cathedral (c.1230–1250), Elizabeth, visibly more pregnant, looks almost put out that Mary has stolen her thunder. In Rembrandt’s ‘Visitation’ (1640), Elizabeth collapses on Mary, scarcely able to believe she really is pregnant, being so ‘well stricken’ in years.
In the battle of the bumps, though, it is striking how often Mary is winning. Artists couldn’t resist a hierarchy: the bigger the bump, the closer to God. In the manuscript illumination of the Visitation painted by the Boucicaut Master for the Boucicaut Book of Hours (c.1408), Elizabeth reaches to touch Mary’s swelling stomach, while her own is concave. They fit together like yin and yang segments. Later paintings, inspired by growing Marian devotion, show Elizabeth kneeling before Mary. In Jacopo da Pontormo’s Visitation fresco for the Church of SS Annunziata in Florence (1514), Mary bends to steady Elizabeth, worried perhaps that she might not be able to get up again.
In Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut ‘The Visitation’ from The Life of the Virgin (c.1503), the cousins reach to embrace — but their bumps are in the way. So pleasing was this composition that carvers of limewood sculptures borrowed it for the folding wings of their altarpieces. The master of the Pfarrkirche Altarpiece at Mauer, near Melk (c.1510) even pinched Dürer’s dog snuffling the ground around Elizabeth’s skirts.
In the Visitation panel of the great limewood sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider’s altarpiece for the Herrgottskirche in Creglingen (c.1505–1510), Mary and Elizabeth stand alone on a rocky outcrop. The wind catches Mary’s draped mantle and blows it behind her. They are buffeted, but hold hands, quite still in the storm.
In other Visitation scenes there is foreshadowing of future sorrows. Melchior Broederlam’s vignette of the Visitation painted on the shutters of the Champol altarpiece (c.1399) has Mary and Elizabeth below a forbidding mountain, a presaging of Calvary, place of Christ’s later crucifixion. Mary rests her hand protectively on the top of her bump, while Elizabeth covers the lower part with her hand.
What the women say is as important as their gestures are. When Mary greets Elizabeth, the Gospel of St Luke tells us, ‘the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.’ Elizabeth’s words become part of the ‘Ave Maria’, and Mary’s words in reply to Elizabeth — ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’ — the opening to the ‘Magnificat’ hymn.
In a stained-glass Visitation window from the church of St Peter Mancroft in Norwich (c.1450), their words become scrolling Latin speech bubbles. Elizabeth wears the then fashionable ‘stomacher’, a piece of triangular fabric sewn into the front of the bodice to conceal the loosened lacing of expanding waists.
And what of the boys? Whether we can see them or not, they are the reason for Mary’s journey from Nazareth. Some artists, taken with the idea of the infant John leaping in the womb, actually show the leap. Mary and Elizabeth are given little cutaway ‘ultrasound’ panels in their robes and, there, in a mandorla, or a nest of golden rays, we see Jesus giving a benediction and John waving in return as in the illuminated Visitation from a gradual in the Karlsruhe Badische Landesbibliothek (c.1300–1340), or John kneeling with his hands in prayer, as in the courtly Visitation in the Kremsmünster in Austria (1460). One particularly lovely example is Master Heinrich von Konstanz’s walnut wood ‘The Visitation’ (c.1310) in gilded robes with rock-crystal cabochons — polished gemstones — set into their stomachs like little peep-windows. Churchmen, however, disapproved and these painted womb babies were banned at the Council of Trent.
After the 17th century, sacred themes gave way to secular and the Visitation was seldom painted. Today, the bump images we see most often are the portraits and selfies of pregnant celebrities — from Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair to Beyoncé in her scanties on Instagram. It is heartening to remember that bump iconography didn’t begin with Annie Leibovitz.
On the Feast of the Visitation — or the next time a celebrity announces ‘Twins!’ on social media — look at Giotto’s fresco Visitation for the Scrovegni Chapel (c.1300–1305) and the way Elizabeth clasps Mary’s arms and looks into her eyes. Unlike the synthetic stars and hearts of social media, there is true joy.