THE VISITATION OF MARY TO ELIZABETH
Looking closely at the plaque that stands on Apparition Hill depicting the Visitation, there is much to see and observe in Carmelo Puzzolo’s sculptured bronze which presents a very lively image of St Luke’s gospel account – and much more! Here is what St Luke has to say about Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth.
Mary set out at that time and went as quickly as she could to a town in the hill country of Judah. She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. Now as soon Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She gave a loud cry and said, “Of all women you are most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord? For the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy. Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.”
And Mary said:
My soul proclaims the greatness of he Lord
and my spirit exults in God my Saviour;
because he has looked upon his lowly handmaid.
Yes, from this day forward all generations will call me blessed,
for the Almighty has done great things for me.
Holy is his name,
and his mercy reaches from age to age, for those who fear him.
He has shown the power of his arm,
he has routed the proud of heart.
He has pulled down princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich sent empty away.
He has come to the help of Israel. his servant, mindful of his mercy
– according to the promise he made to our ancestors –
of his mercy to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.
Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months and then went back home. (Luke 1 : 39-58)
• The significant difference between St Luke’s account and Puzzolo’s depiction is where Mary and Elizabeth meet. In the Gospel account Mary enters the house to greet Elizabeth. But the Puzzolo presentation shows the meeting outside and this allows the artist to enhance the scene as if to encourage further contemplation.
In St Luke’s Visitation account, Zechariah is mentioned only as the house holder. Remember that in his role as priest, Zechariah was left dumb when he questioned the message from Angel Gabriel, that his wife Elizabeth would give birth to a son, John. In the Puzzolo illustration Zechariah is shown present at the moment of greeting between his wife and Mary, but notice his demeanour as he stands in the doorway. His mouth is shut tight, almost zipped, expressing his inability to speak. He is hesitant. His one hand grips the door frame, a need to hold on to something solid and structured. There is no desire to step out of his house. He does not wish to cross the threshold. He is not extending any greeting. He seems uncertain as he fixes his gaze directly at Mary. Unlike Elizabeth, he has yet to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
ELIZABETH – In contrast, Elizabeth has crossed the threshold, stepping out in faith, and as she kneels before her cousin Mary, the tabernacle, she is filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth gives her hand (her heart) to Mary and Jesus while her other hand feels the child in her womb leap for joy. Behind her, the door that represents the gateway to her heart, is wide open.
MARY – See how Mary, her ‘bump’ showing, is placed two steps above Elizabeth, but not above Zechariah, the priest! See how Mary uses both her hands to clasp the offered hand of Elizabeth. Now follow the direction to Mary’s face and see the clasp that holds her veil. Clasps are designed to hold, to join, to keep together.
THE FIG TREE – Behind Mary is the prominent and twisting trunk of the fig tree, its leaves and branches form a canopy. This fruit-bearing tree is a reminder of Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary when she says: “Blessed is the fruit of your womb.” It also echoes the passage in St John’s Gospel which tells of Nathaniel’s response to the news when Simon, Peter and Philip had discovered the Messiah: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Later when Nathaniel asked, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree.” Nathaniel responded with utter faith and belief saying, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel.” Now we see Mary under the fig tree and Elizabeth responding with similar conviction: “Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord?” In contrast, on the left side of the plaque, Zechariah is not so forthcoming and is uncertain in his faith.
THE CAT – Positioned at the base of the fig tree is a cat, its ribs suggesting that it is not well-fed and unlikely to be domesticated. But nevertheless, it has a purpose in this scene – to catch the mice that feed of the bark of the fig tree. Momentarily, it seems distracted from its role as mouse-catcher, perhaps by Mary’s toes peeping through her sandals!