The Iconography of the Virgin Mary


The "Visitation" is the Virgin Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth "in a city of Judah in the mountains" (Luke 1:39-56). It is the subject of the second "decade" of the Rosary prayer, so it has been especially familiar to Catholics since the 16th century. Images typically show the two women greeting each other upon Mary's arrival. Mary will always be identifiable by her blue mantle. More often than not she is veiled. Elizabeth is almost always veiled. The greeting is usually pictured as an embrace, as above. In one case I have seen there is a kiss. Sometimes Elizabeth touches Mary's belly or breast. A sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum gives each a belly of gemstone.

The setting varies but is almost never inside the house (see one very late exception). It may be at the entrance to Elizabeth's house, following the Protevangelium's statement that Elizabeth "ran to the door" (¶12) when Mary knocked. In earlier works such as the second picture at right, the house is made to look somewhat like a church or temple. In the picture above, the flying buttresses and ribbed vaulting of ecclesiastical architecture have been added to an otherwise normal house. In the third picture at right the house looks just like a Romanesque church.

Alternatively, to represent the "city of Judah in the mountains" the greeting may be set outside the city gates (example), sometimes as far outside as a couple of football fields. This gave Renaissance artists a chance to indulge in a bit of landscape painting (example).

Sometimes Mary and Elizabeth are the only persons in the composition, or in the case of city-gates settings there may be just one distant figure entering or leaving at the gate. But many Visitations add other characters. Quite a few in the late Middle Ages are like the picture above, where Mary arrives in the company of other young women. In the apocryphal gospels Mary leaves the Temple after Joseph is chosen as her spouse-to-be. The priests assign some Temple virgins to accompany her to the home where she will be awaiting Joseph.1 It is likely that these are the young women that the medieval Visitations show with Mary. In a few cases she is accompanied by what appears to be a female servant carrying a sack, as in the first picture on the right.

Another addition that we see as early as the 6th century and as late as the 14th is a young person peeking out from the house. In the second picture on the right it is a young man or boy holding back a curtain to observe the scene. In the Romanesque reliefs at Vézelay (third picture at right) it is a boy with the crude features used at the time to suggest servile status. We see the figure again, this time a young woman pulling aside the curtain, in the 14th-century façade reliefs at Orvieto (first picture at right). In a 13th-century sculpture group a young female of diminutive size standing apart from the other figures may also be related to this tradition.

And of course we sometimes see Elizabeth's husband Zechariah, as above and in this example.

In Luke the angel tells Mary that Elizabeth is six months pregnant, and Mary stays with her for three months. Adding in the time for travel to Judah, we might calculate that Mary was there for the birth of John the Baptist, and indeed the Golden Legend tells us that she stayed in the city "for three months until John was born, and lifted him from the earth with her own hands" (Ryan I, 200). This is pictured in Salimbeni's cycle on the life of John the Baptist, as is Mary's departure.

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University NEXT:

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Lorenzo and Jacopo Salimbeni, The Life of John the Baptist: "The Visitation," 1416. See the description page.


Relief at Orvieto Cathedral – See description page

Visitation mosaic in Poreč Cathedral – See the description page

12th-century Vi­si­ta­tion with the house as a church. A boy peeks out from one of the win­dows. – See the description page.




1 The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, ¶8. The Gospel of the Nativity of Mary, ¶8.