Feast of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary
Rogier van der Weyden (Tournai 1399 c. – Bruxelles 1464), Visitation, around 1435, tempera on walnut wood, 57.5 x 36.5 cm, Leipzig, Musée des Beaux-Arts
The setting of the small picture, probably painted for private devotion of a client, is outdoors and in the background stands a castle which symbolizes the town where Zechariah and Elizabeth lived. The countryside is green, the sky full of clouds and flying birds. Elizabeth, the Virgin’s cousin, has run to meet her and is embracing her.
The painting is based on the meeting of the two women. There are numerous contrasts and references: Mary is dressed in blue, while Elizabeth is wearing a red dress. Elizabeth, being older, has her head covered while her younger cousin shows her long black hair. Mary’s complexion is pure white and Elizabeth’s is more tanned. Mary is standing still while Elizabeth gives the impression of movement and is pictured in a slight arc as she faces her cousin.
The simplicity of the scene surprises, but at the same time, it is intensely solemn. The preciousness of Mary’s belt and her finely pleated skirt are of note.
The gestures of the two women make evident the presence of those who are not pictured. Mary’s left hand rests above Elizabeth’s womb, while Elizabeth has placed her hand above Mary’s womb. Both have indeed conceived their children - Jesus and John the Baptist - and their mutual indication emphasizes the central focus of the picture: motherhood. In both cases, the children were conceived in an extraordinary way: Elisabeth because she "was barren and advanced in years...." (Luke 1: 7); Mary, because she was a virgin (Luke 1: 34). Of the two, it is Mary and her child who are preeminent as evidenced by Elisabeth’s first words to her cousin: "Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb" (Luke 1: 42).