The art essay of the month
The Visitation (c. 1310–1320) by /Attributed to Master Heinrich of Constance
For one hundred years, a statuette of Elizabeth and Mary has enchanted visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval collection. Crafted during the 14th century in the workshop of Heinrich of Constance, this “Visitation Group,” as scholars often refer to it, was originally housed within the convent of Katharinenthal, a Swiss foundation of cloistered Dominican nuns.
Standing two feet tall, the pair are united in a jubilant embrace. Well-preserved polychromy vivifies the wooden figures with rosy cheeks, creamy flesh tones, and spirited expressions, while delicate gilding highlights their golden locks and flowing mantles. Mary and Elizabeth’s abdomens are both inset with luminous cabochons. These polished rock crystals once magnified images of the fetal Jesus and John the Baptist.
The Visitation Group, as a devotional image for the monastics of Katharinenthal, functioned as a visual aid for meditation. How did its artistic peculiarities inform and guide the nuns’ meditations on this familiar scriptural story?
Ark of the Covenant
Our first interpretive key is the scroll Elizabeth clasps to her chest, which unfurls from beneath her palm as if overflowing from her heart. Miniature gold leaf letters communicate her famous query: And how is it, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (Lk 1:43)
The Gospel writer placed four phrases on Elizabeth’s lips during this momentous meeting, and the artist’s choice of this one—to the exclusion of the others—is not arbitrary. To understand this choice, we must return to the Biblical episode. Mary had traveled for several days—eighty-one miles as the crow flies—from Nazareth to the Judean hill country (Lk 1:39) outside Jerusalem. There, she was welcomed into the home of her kinswoman Elizabeth and remained with her for about three months (Lk 1:56). Elizabeth’s question—How is it, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?—powerfully evokes a similar story in the Old Testament. The Second Book of Samuel, chapter 6, describes King David’s travels with the ark of the covenant through the very same hill country of Judea. Awed by the mighty power of the Lord’s presence—the shekinah of his glory contained within the ark—David exclaims: How can it be, that the ark of the Lord has come to me? (2 Sm 6:9). David chooses the residence of a trusted person in the hill country; there he houses the ark for three months (2 Sm 6:11).
Steeped in Scripture, the Dominicans of Katharinenthal would have immediately recognized the connotation. In the Visitation Group, Mary is—quite literally—a container. A representation of Christ was once nestled into a deeply carved cavity in her abdomen. She is the vessel bearing the divine presence—the Ark of the New Covenant.
I will make my dwelling place among you; I will be your God and you will be my people (Lv 26:11-12). An ingredient in this nuptial formula—which established the old covenant—is the promise of divine immanence. The ark of the covenant, once the locus of God’s presence on earth, is replaced in the New Testament by Mary, the dwelling place of God with men (Rv 21:3). Through her, God renews his vows to his people in the most astonishing way.
John’s leap in Elizabeth’s womb (Lk 1:41) refers to an ancient Israelite wedding tradition: a male relative of the bridegroom and member of the wedding party performed this distinctive râqad to initiate the “dance of two companies” bringing bride and bridegroom together. John, the cousin of Jesus, recognizes the arrival of the divine Bridegroom and leaps in ecstatic joy, thus commencing the nuptial dance that will unite Christ with his Bride, the Church.
Mary and Elizabeth’s youthful exuberance in the Visitation Group recalls that of maidens rejoicing at the Bridegroom’s arrival: Sing and rejoice, daughter of Zion! Behold, I come to dwell in your midst (Zec 2:14). Their right hands are solemnly joined in the dextrarum iunctio, underscoring the scene’s marital connotations. In Christian art, this sacred handclasp evokes an exchange of vows.
The partnership between the women in the Visitation Group also calls to mind the heroines of ancient Israel who often worked in tandem to save their people. From this perspective, Mary and Elizabeth can be understood as allies rapt in the exultation of victory. They stand united on equal ground, with eyes beaming in unanimous jubilation.
Elizabeth’s exclamation Blessed are you among women (Lk 1:42) recalls two Old Testament episodes in which this exact phrasing was used: to extol Jael (Jgs 5:24) and Judith (Jdt 13:18). Both women collaborated with a female accomplice to infiltrate the enemy army and literally crush the head of its leader. By assigning this designation to her young cousin, Elizabeth indicates Mary’s fulfillment of the Genesis 3:15 prophecy: the head of the ancient adversary will be crushed through her.
Bridging Old and New Testaments
The women in the Katharinenthal sculpture bear a strong physical resemblance. Unlike most depictions of this scene, no sign of age or status distinguishes one figure from the other. Their gleaming wombs, youthful faces, and luxurious garments are arranged in mirror-like identicality. The graceful lines of their slender arms guide the viewer’s eye back and forth to consider each woman, forming a gestural bridge that unifies the pair into a composite whole. The Visitation Group acts as a bridge for those who meditate with it, guiding the mind’s eye seamlessly from New to Old Testament verses. Its figural composition—characterized by the union of a mirrored pair—evokes the complementarity and typological similarities of Sacred Scripture.
In particular, the intertwined arms and mirrored forms of Mary and Elizabeth recall John the Baptist’s traditional appellation as “bridge” between Old and New Testaments. The last in a long line of prophets, John is uniquely privileged to usher in the Messianic age. Isaac’s haunting question—Father…where is the lamb for the sacrifice? (Gn 22:7)—echoes throughout the Old Testament, awaiting John’s reply in the presence of the Lord: Behold the Lamb of God (Jn 1:29).
Studied theology in Rome and art history at Yale.
The Visitation (c. 1310–1320), Attributed to Master Heinrich of Constance, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Public domain.