Visitation; Mariotto ALBERTINELLI; 1503; oil on wood; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

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The visitation

Unerstand the scene


Mary, who is pregnant of Jesus, visits her cousin Elizabeth who herself is expecting John the Baptist.

The scene takes place in the open air or on the threshold of Elizabeth’s house. The position of the characters changed in the Middle-Ages with the two women greeting each other at a distance but Italian painters in the Renaissance represented them standing and embracing each other; at the classical period, Elizabeth tended to kneel down before Mary.

The two women are pregnant; their pregnancy is emphasized by their clothing even if Elizabeth has been bearing her child for over six months whereas Mary has just conceived. The age difference of the two women is stressed; Mary is always very young whereas Elizabeth is aged as her pregnancy is unexpected.

Two secondary characters can enrich the scene. One often finds Joseph and Zacharias, Mary’s and Elizabeth’s husbands, but also the two half-sisters given to Mary by the apocryphal gospels, Mary Salome and Mary Cleophas (formerly also called Mary Jacoby). They wear the haloes of saints to distinguish them from occasional maids.

The biblical narrative

 The Gospel according to Luke, chapter 1

Mary entered the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elizabeth.
And it came to pass, that, when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost:
And she spoke out with a loud voice, and said : "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, look, as soon as the voice of your salutation sounded in my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she who believed, for there shall be a fulfilment of those things which were told her from the Lord ..."
(Luke 1:40-45)

Mary then sings the Magnificat, a song of thanksgiving.


John the Baptist and Jesus were very close to each other, but the Gospel according to Luke is the only one to present them as relatives or cousins. They are both the children of the Promise but John will be the forerunner and the one who will recognize the Messiah in Jesus. After the Visitation, his mother Elizabeth anticipates this relation and brings to the fore Mary’s outstanding position.

See similar pictures


Two visitations by the same Italian painter.



Visitation; Domenico GHIRLANDAIO; 1486; fresco; church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence

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Visitation; Domenico GHIRLANDAIO; 1490; oil on wood; Louvre Museum, Paris

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Two visitations of the same century, one Flemish, the other French


Visitation; Rogier van der WEYDEN; 1445; oil on wood; Museum der Bildenden Künste, Leipzig, Germany.

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Visitation; Jean FOUQUET; circa 1453; oil on parchment; miniature from the Hours of Etienne Chevalier; Musée Condé, Chantilly, France

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Movement is dominant in these two paintings. Puget’s Mary, wearing a small hat, quickly climbs the stairs to announce the good news; Maulbertsch’s Mary sings the Magnificat before a very old Elizabeth.


Visitation; Pierre PUGET; 1659; oil on canvas; Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence, France

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Visitation; Franz MAULBERTSCH; 1771-77; fresco; Vàc cathedral, Hungary

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Two 19th century Visitations; in Burne-Jones, the two women embrace each other; in Denis, they look like two visiting middle class ladies.


Sir Edward BURNE-JONES; 1860; stained glass window; central panel, St Columba’s Church, Topcliffe, Yorkshire, England

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Visitation; Maurice DENIS; 1896 oil on canvas, the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

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Further developpements


The Magnificat

The narrative of the Visitation ends with a poem or song of thanksgiving, gratitude and praise beginning in the Latin Bible by the words “Magnificat anima mea Dominum”, “My soul does magnify the Lord”.

  The Madona of the Magnificat; Sandro BOTTICELLI; 1480; tempera on panel; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

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My soul does magnify the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden:
For, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty has done to me great things; and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on those that fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he has sent empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;
As he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.

(The Gospel according to Luke 1:46-55)

The first Latin word “Magnificat” has been given as a title to this poem made up of biblical quotations or allusions; it is quite famous and it has been set to music by the greatest compositors. In everyday language, any song of thanksgiving can be called a “magnificat”.


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