Appreciating the Virgin Mary’s Stinging Side-Eye

Pontormo’s “Visitation” is an obvious masterpiece of Renaissance art, but can we also appreciate the edgier aspects of this visionary Mannerist’s work?

Jacopo da Pontormo, “Visitation” (1528–1529), oil on panel (photo by Antonio Quattrone, courtesy the Morgan Library & Museum)

Catholic Renaissance art is well-known for its iconographical tropes, which is why scholarship tends to focus on the minutiae of an artist’s composition. Michelangelo had a thing for large hands and buff bodies. Leonardo Da Vinci approached his compositions with scientific rigor and feverish imagination. Donatello? If his sculptures of Mary Magdalene are any indication, the artist had a think for luscious hair.

After seeing Jacapo da Pontormo’s exquisitely dramatic “Visitation” (1528–1529), currently on view in the Morgan Library & Museum’s Pontormo: Miraculous Encounters, I can safely say that the Florentine Mannerist is a master of shade. Was there ever a sassier Virgin Mary than his?

Like a tabloid magazine ripping its headlines from the Bible, Pontormo scandalizes the Virgin’s visitation with her aged relative Elizabeth. Attended by two other women, the cousins grip each others’ flowing robes. The elderly Elizabeth wears a chartreuse veil, which emphasizes her matronly disposition, along with an obnoxiously loud orange garment that ensnares her lime-green robe. The Virgin is considerably more stylish, if also barefoot. She wears a luxurious blue robe with a pink piece of fabric tied through her long, flowing hair.

(Close-up image by author)

According to the Gospel of Luke, “it came to pass that, when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped into her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost.” Controversially, Pontormo diverges from this account, nor does he depict the two women inside the house of Zechariah in the city of Judah as the Bible says. All the powers of immaculate conception are stowed away in the Virgin’s glance, which the artist renders with considerably dramatic flare. Imbued with the beauty of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” (c. 1484–86), Mary is the clear queen bee of this female quartet. But most spectacular is how Pontormo emphasizes the white of the Virgin’s eyes, her arched eyebrow, and the slightest tilt of her chin. A knowing glance toward her cousin Elizabeth, she needs neither words nor gestures to get her message across: a miraculous birth is coming. Importantly, we do not see the placement of the Virgin’s other hand. Is she cradling Elizabeth’s womb, as she does in so many other paintings made before and after this one? Is she holding her cousin’s hand in consolation? And the viewer is left puzzling over Elizabeth’s emotionless face. How will she receive the news of her pregnancy with soon-to-be-born John the Baptist?

Unsurprisingly, such a dramatic and iconoclastic painting was made during an equivalently turbulent period in Florence. Pontormo painted “Visitation” following the expulsion of the Medici, and shortly preceding their bloody siege of the city and return to power starting in 1529. During the intervening years, Florence was a republic where citizens banded together for the defense of their little democracy. But understanding Pontormo’s place within this history is difficult given that he was an artist working under a system of patronage — and arguably the Renaissance’s biggest patrons were either fleeing the city or destroying it during a good chunk of the artist’s career.

The little we know about Pontormo comes from his rival Giorgio Vasari’s account of the period. The “first art historian” depicts the Mannerist as an eccentric loner; he also fails to mention “Visitation” anywhere in his foundational Life text. (Writing for the exhibition’s catalogue, Bruce Edelstein hypothesizes that Vasari simply had no knowledge of the painting.)

(Close-up image by author)

What I find most entrancing about “Visitation” — besides, of course, the Virgin’s gaze — are the minor characters that dot the painting’s sparsely decorated urban landscape. Toward the bottom-left of the panel are two tradesmen who were previously buried below an overpainted conservation attempt. They reemerge from their grey bench with similarly grey-painted faces. Looking like actors from a carnival masque, these men lean against a nearby wall in their stitched-up, bulging trousers. Scholars do dispute the identities of these tradesmen, however. The exhibition catalogue describes the nearby donkey as evidence that the two figures are actually Joseph and Zechariah. Speaking of the donkey, he is easily the most terrifying inclusion in the painting. Illustrated with an unnaturally human smile, the animal may be intended to bestow a beastly blessing upon Mary and Elizabeth’s meeting, but it just reads to my modern eyes as absurdly demonic. Why any three of these figures entered the composition is a mystery. After all, a study for “Visitation” also included in the exhibition demonstrates that they were not initially planned for the painting.

“Visitation” is a painting nine-feet-high and brimming with luminous finesse. What makes Pontormo so exceptional is his ability to imbue his larger-than-life saints with a spirit of individuality that retains their intrinsic mystery. And although he may not yet have the brand recognition of Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and Donatello, Pontormo’s work certainly argues that he can compete with the best.

Pontormo: Miraculous Encounters continues through January 6 at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown East, Manhattan)

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