Giulio Romano (Rome 1499 - Mantova 1546) and Giovanni Francesco Penni (Florence 1496 - Mantova 1528), The Visitation, c. 1517, oil on canvas, 200 x 145 cm, Madrid, Museo del Prado.
Month of February.
Women of the New Testament: Elizabeth.
During those days Mary set out and travelled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, "Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord 14 should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed 15 that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled”. (Lk 1, 39-45)
Elizabeth, Mary's cousin, is the second woman we meet in the New Testament. Mentioned by the angel at the Annunciation, she is the co-protagonist of Mary's first act: coming to her, who has learned that she is pregnant, to help her, especially given her age.
We know the story of the large canvas depicting Elizabeth and Mary: it was commissioned by Giovanni Battista Branconio, a goldsmith from L'Aquila who moved to Rome, where he developed a brilliant career and became one of the most influential figures at the papal court. In Rome he developed a close friendship with Raphael and it was the already famous painter from Urbino whom he approached for a work that he wished to donate to his father Marino for the family chapel in the church of San Silvestro in L'Aquila. The choice of subject was due to several autobiographical reasons: in fact, Marino's wife was called Elisabetta, like John the Baptist's mother; and John Baptist was also the name of our commissioner!
Raphael conceived and chose the subject of the work (it is not for nothing that the work is signed by him, as can be seen in the lower left corner, where it reads "RAPHAEL URBINAS F '), although he then entrusted the execution to two of his most talented collaborators: Giulio Romano, who painted the figures of the two women, and Giovanni Francesco Penni, who painted the beautiful landscape in which the scene is set.
The first thing that strikes us, looking at the painting, is Raphael's choice to place the encounter between the two cousins in the middle of the field. Undoubtedly, this allows us to highlight the two bodies in their totality and physicality. The beautiful surrounding landscape also becomes an opportunity to place in the background an episode which, many years after the meeting of the two mothers, will see their children as the protagonists: on the left we see the river Jordan, with John the Baptist baptising Jesus. And that it is indeed them is attested by the torn sky from which God the Father appears: "And a voice came from heaven: 'You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased'" (Lk 3:22b).
The second thing that strikes us is precisely the portrait of Elizabeth: the painter emphasises her wrinkles, he is not afraid to show us that she is an old woman, indeed it is she who takes the initiative, shaking Mary's hand and looking at her with love and veneration.
Let us not forget that it was precisely Elizabeth's greeting, which we repeat every time we recite the "Hail Mary", that provoked in the Virgin the marvellous singing of the "Magnificat". A fleeting appearance, then, of Elizabeth in the Gospel, but what grace and what joy!
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee,
you are blessed among women
and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners
now and at the hour of our death, Amen!
(Contribution by Vito Pongolini)