Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Blessed Virgin Mary: A Meditation on The Visitation

Master of the Spes Nostra (Active in Delft 1490 - 1510)
Four Augustinian Canon Regulars Meditating Beside an Open Grave c. 1495 - 1510
Oil on panel
88 x 104.5 cm
The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Immediately after the Annunciation, St Luke narrates that Mary went to see her cousin Elizabeth ("The Visitation") who was soon to be the mother of St John the Baptist

This picture is, it has to be said, a rather strange depiction of The Visitation
In the foreground, four Canon Regulars are kneeling beside an open grave in which lies a rotting corpse. On the left stands St Jerome. On the right, St Augustine.

The inscriptions in the foreground are blunt and to the point.

On the lid of the tomb are the words: "Requiescant in pace" ("May they rest in peace")

Beside the grave in gilded Gothic lettering are the words:

"Si quis eris qui transieris hoc repice plora
Sum quod eris es ipse fui pro me precor ora"

"Whomsoever passes by here, let him gaze and mourn
I am what you will be, what you are I once was, I beg you to pray for me."

The painting was a Memorial for four Rectors at the Monastery at Marienpoel, near Leiden. It hung over their graves in the chapel. The monastery was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, St Jerome and St Augustine.

Their names were possibly Johannes Crispiani (+1496), Gijsbert N. (+1496), Sebastiaan Fransz (+1507) and Gerard Dirlesz (+1504)

Pray for them.

Behind the horrific and very disturbing image in the foreground, in the centre of the painting are images of Consolation and Hope. They centre on the Virgin Mary and the Incarnation.

The central image is of the Visitation. Mary is sitting beside the grave in a walled garden ("hortus conclusus"). A pregnant St Elizabeth places her hand on Mary`s belly indicating that she is pregnant.

On the arrival of Mary to the house of St Elizabeth it will be recalled that John the Baptist whilst still in his mother`s womb leapt for joy. He is thus cleansed from Original Sin and is filled with Grace.

The Visitation is the first occasion that Mary exercises her role as Mediatrix between God and May. We also remember the great prayer of Mary uttered at this time: the Magnificat.

Luke 1: 34 - 57 describes the scene and what happens:

"34 But Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?"
35 And the angel said to her in reply, "The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.
36 And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
37 for nothing will be impossible for God."

38 Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.
39 During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah,
40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

41 When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit,
42 cried out in a loud voice and said, "Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
43 And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
44 For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
45 Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled."

46 And Mary said: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
47 my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
48 For he has looked upon his handmaid's lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
49 The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him.
51 He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
52 He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.
53 The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy,
55 according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

56 Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
57 When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son."

Behind the central image of The Visitation are images of the early life of Mary and of Christ: the Annunciation; Mary playing with Jesus in the garden; and even Jesus riding a hobbyhorse (a common image in medieval art)

In the Hortus conclusus are Angels and birds. Note the peacocks. Peacocks are the ancient Christian symbol of Eternal Life. Further, the multitude of eyes on the peacock`s tail symbolise the all seeing eyes of God.

A Utrecht University website (Memorietafels) has much valuable information about the Monastery of Marienpoel and this picture in particular. Well worth visiting.