Piero di Cosimo's 'Visitation' a pilgrimage in a painting

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The "Visitation" by Piero di Cosimo, painted around 1490, is a beloved treasure of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Depicting the meeting between the pregnant Virgin Mary with her aged cousin Elizabeth, who was expecting St. John the Baptist, the colorful panel evokes a mystery play in which we may imagine local laypeople re-enacting - on the steps of a church - the drama recounted in Luke 1:39-63.

Currently one of the highlights of the exhibit, "Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence," once stood on an altar in Santo Spirito in Florence, the church of the Augustinian friars that was the last and purest masterpiece of the Renaissance architect Brunelleschi. After a devastating fire in 1471, the church was redecorated by the leading Florentine artists of the day with the aim of creating visual harmony in the church's interior.

The first major retrospective exhibit of Piero di Cosimo will be on view at the National Gallery until May 3, and then travel to Uffizi Gallery in Florence for a three-month stay. The show unites some 44 paintings including religious works, portraits and depictions of mythology and history. One altarpiece, The "Madonna and Child with Saints Lazarus and Sebastian," is on loan for the first time from a church in Montevettolini, a beautiful out-of-the-way Tuscan hill town where it has been for more than 500 years. Another, from the Museum of the Innocenti (Florence's foundling hospital), was made for an altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary and is considered Piero's religious masterpiece.

Homage to the unborn

The exact center of Piero's "Visitation" is the handclasp joining the two women. "When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.'" Believers today recognize those words in the Hail Mary that joins the salutation of the angel Gabriel to Mary with Elizabeth's greeting.

Technical analysis of the picture revealed that small nail holes around the perimeter and along the central axis converge on the clasped hands, which signify recognition of their pregnancies - a magnificent homage to the dignity of the unborn child.

The movements of the two women deserve a close look. Elizabeth, looking straight into Mary's eyes, raises her left hand as if to say, "Who am I that the mother of Our Lord should come to me?" The young Virgin places a reassuring hand on the older woman's shoulder, and we expect at any moment that she will begin her canticle, "My soul doth magnify the Lord."

In the landscape background, the artist, famed for his originality in representing sacred and pagan stories alike, has unfolded a journey through time of the infancy of Christ as recounted in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

On the right, Piero depicted an event of the recent past as a fresco painting on the facade of a church, when the angel Gabriel announced, "You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name Him Jesus." This detail might refer to a famous miracle-working mural of the Annunciation on the inside facade wall of the Florentine Servite church of the Annunciation.

In the left background, the shepherds adore the newborn Christ Child, an event of the future. They approach bearing gifts for the Holy Family, resting in the shadow of a three-story building. Behind them, even further in the future, we glimpse the entourage of the Magi making their way down a hillside.

Our eye travels back to the right, and here, against the backdrop of city buildings, Herod's soldiers are massacring the innocents of Bethlehem. Piero has made the scene vivid by showing the mothers spilling out of the town in a vain attempt to escape, while one child clings to a ledge.

The front of the painting brings us to two much-venerated saints. The three golden balls identify St. Nicholas on the left through one of his most famous deeds: when he secretly endowed three poor girls with the balls as dowries to keep them from being sold into prostitution. In a delightful detail, the shiny balls reflect the interior of the church. On the right, St. Anthony Abbot writes on a parchment while wearing Renaissance black spectacles. Anthony, a desert ascetic, was admired in the 15th century not as a writer but as the very opposite - a man who studied what he called God's "book of nature."

Hamerman, who teaches art and catechesis at Christendom Graduate School in Alexandria, can be reached at norahamerman@aol.com.

If you go

Piero di Cosimo's works are on display Feb. 1 through May 3 at the National Gallery of Art's West Building, 6th St. and Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington. For more information, go to nga.gov.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015