Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1557) was an Italian mannerist painter and portraitist from the Florentine School. His work represents a profound stylistic shift from the calm perspectival regularity that characterized the art of the Florentine Renaissance. Pontormo painted in and around Florence, often supported by patronage from the Medici family.
He began his career as a traditional Renaissance painter under the influence of Andrea del Sarto, but after visiting Rome and seeing the work of Michelangelo, his painting took on a more dramatic and mannerist style. We see this especially in the elegantly elongated figures of the Virgin and St. Elizabeth. Their bodies seem to float and drift toward each other in clouds of drapery of almost violent contrasts of colors. This mannerist style would eventually lead into the full drama and flamboyancy of the Baroque period.
This painting of the Visitation is really quite simple in its composition, allowing us to focus on the beauty and serenity of the faces of Mary and Elizabeth as they greet one another. They look intently into each other’s eyes and souls. Both women trusted in the word of the Lord and the message of the angel about their wombs, their hopes and their futures. Mary traveled to comfort, support and affirm Elizabeth, while Elizabeth in turn feels honored and proclaims Mary blessed.
Mary was happy to share her “Good News” with her cousin, Elizabeth. In fact, the two women became a great support to each other as they profess that the world is pregnant with God’s life.
Two “handmaidens” stand behind Mary and Elizabeth, staring fixedly into space. They seem totally detached from what is happening in front of them. The young one behind Mary wears clothes of the same colors as the Virgin’s but in reverse, while the older handmaiden bears an extraordinary likeness to the figure of Elizabeth. Scholars have yet to fully understand the meaning of these figures, so it remains open to interpretation.
I like to see them as “before” representations of Mary and Elizabeth. Both were going about the ordinary business of life, focused on the task before them, when the angel of the Lord spoke to them and changed everything. This should serve as a reminder that things can change for us as well if, while going about the business of our lives, we remain open to not hearing but receiving God’s Word in the “womb” of our hearts.
FATHER VINCENT DE PAUL CROSBY is a monk, priest and artist at St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. To see his work, visit fabricart.net.