15th Century-16th Century Attributed to Jean Bellegambe, French (c. 1480–1534-1536)
Object Type: PAINTINGS
Creation Place: Europe, France
Medium and Support: Oil on wood panel
Accession Number: 67-P-22
Current Location: Art Museum : 15-16 C Gallery
This work is attributed to the fifteenth-century French painter Jean Bellegambe who specialized in diptychs and triptychs, double and triple folding panels that were installed above church altars to inspire the faithful with portrayals of biblical scenes. This piece could very well have been one of those panels.
The story is, of course, about two women, both cousins and pregnant, one younger and the other older, who come together to rejoice in the children they bear and the prophetic import these births will have on the world. Mary on the left is carrying Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah and on the right her cousin Elizabeth is bearing John who will eventually baptize Jesus. Let us look at some shapes to see how the structure informs the message and supports the story. See how Mary’s tall figure on the left counterbalances the tall tree on the right. The tree also serves the purpose of dividing the panel in two to emphasize the distinct roles of the women and their children. But the essence of the story is not about division; it’s about coming together from afar, full circle. Note how the women’s arms and hands, almost clasping, form an arc that is repeated in reverse by the curve of the bushes behind the women to form a complete circle.
Like many artists of the fifteenth century this artist contemporizes the biblical scene permitting the faithful of his day to identify with it. Mary has come from afar to enter the house of Zacharias and greet Elizabeth, but the house portrayed here in a blue shadow is far from a dwelling one would see in biblical Palestine. It’s more like a contemporary building found in northern France or southern Belgium where Bellegambe was from. In addition, the two women are fair skinned, and Mary’s hair is decidedly blond. Not the complexion one expects to find in the Middle East but rather in northern Europe.
Painters of that time were fond of including symbolic animals to support the underlying message or story they were depicting. What is that on the ground between the two women? It’s a butterfly. A symbol of transformation and regeneration, the butterfly here announces the births of Jesus and his predecessor John, both of whom will usher in a transformation from the old order of politics and religious practice to generate a new order of hope and peace.
One of the aspects of the Visitation, Mary’s journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth, that has always struck me is the ordinariness of it. It is a journey of one relative to another. The journey may indeed have been prompted by an angel’s message but it is at its simplest a journey, a visit, something we normally do not pay much attention to in terms of history and story. We do not hear about the visitation of the Smiths to the Jones or of the visitation of Joe home for the holidays. Why then is this visitation so different? Why do Luke write about this particular event and why does Bellegambe choose to paint this particular scene from Luke’s gospel.
For me the answer may be in the very ordinariness of it. In the painting, for example, there are workers going about the business of maintaining the property or farm. The appropriate person, Elizabeth, has come out to greet Mary and offer the appropriate hospitality while life continues on around them both. She is prepared to offer the expected response of receiving a guest, hospitality and welcome. Elizabeth, however, is surprised at the guests that she meets. While she may have been expecting Mary, or been surprised at her arrival, the child she is carrying leaps for joy at the arrival of Mary and her unborn child. The Greek conveys far more than leaps. The word is the same one that is used when David dances with wild abandonment before the Ark of the Covenant when it is being brought up to Jerusalem. Elizabeth’s unborn child dances within her with wild abandonment when Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice. Who is this woman whom Elizabeth thought she knew and who is the child that she is carrying?
This, for me, is the heart of the Visitation, the willingness to be surprised, to be “visited” by God in the ordinariness of life. Elizabeth, going about the duties of hospitality, is surprised by God. She realizes that the child that Mary carries is no ordinary child. She feels in her very body, her unborn child dancing within her, the presence of God. How often do I sense that God is present in the ordinariness of life or do I expect that I will only find God in the special moments of life? As Lasallians we are encouraged to find the presence of God in our daily lives. For me that often means taking time to be quiet, to find God in nature, in the scriptures, but La Salle also reminds us that we find God in our students, in each other. Am I willing to see God in the ordinary moments of life, to be surprised at who I greet in the course of the day? To feel my spirt dance with wild abandonment because I have encountered God in the day to day offering of hospitality and friendship.
How will I be visited today? How will I be a moment of God’s visitation for another?