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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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...

5 replies on “Appreciating the Virgin Mary’s Stinging Side-Eye”

  1. I’ve been meditating with art for quite some time now. I go hot and cold on the Mannerists; this particular painting is dynamic and interesting. Thank you for (re)introducing it to me. I know that an encounter with art is personal, and that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ interpretations have limited reach. I’m just not getting the ‘side-eye’ bit here…there’s a bit of judgement or attitude or as you say ‘sassiness’ implied in someone who gives a side-eye to another. I recall a photo of Michelle Obama some years ago was one classic version of it…can’t even recall who the recipient was. Why would Mary be wielding such an attitude though? Not fitting into any part of the story cycle I’m familiar with. I’m not saying you’re wrong; I’m just perplexed. I think I also see expression in Elizabeth, one befitting an older woman, of compassion generated from years of hard experience.

  2. Sorry; just don’t see it. Mary’s face is in strict profile–not 3/4, not 7/8. Her eyes are aimed directly forward, into Elizabeth’s eyes. There is to “side-eye” here. Were I to assign a dialog to this gaze between the 2 figures it would be, “Really?! You too?!”

  3. “All the powers of immaculate conception are stowed away in the Virgin’s glance…” Not sure what you’re suggesting with that comment.

    “And the viewer is left puzzling over Elizabeth’s emotionless face.” Please look again after looking at older women and men. Elizabeth’s face is full of emotion. Her face is tilted away from the viewer slightly, a movement people make when they (we) are puzzled, pondering, expressing a deep curiosity for the subject of our attention. This slight tilt allows Pontormo to show the viewer Elizabeth’s double chin which, together with her wrinkled neck, sagging cheek, and bulging nose indicate an older face. Compassion. It’s there. This is an older woman looking at a younger woman with a keen awareness of what awaits. No need to give them names such as Elizabeth and Mary, they are simply two women.

    And that “obnoxiously loud orange garment”? That’s “stylish,” certainly in comparison with Mary’s traditional blue robe.

  4. It seems to me that the two attendants are in fact Mary and Elizabeth, facing forward; this is a double image of both women, emphasizing their dual natures: human and semi-divine. Look carefully. They are shown removed from specific context as a universalizing gesture, emphasizing the larger significance of their meeting, and of who they are, as part of the narrative of Christ’s life on earth. Their immense scale relative to the two small male figures and the donkey reinforces this. Pontormo insists on the divine, larger-than-life meaning of the Visitation and its two protagonists; this is not intended as a realistic image of an everyday encounter; calling it “sassy” misses the point.

  5. I gotta hand it to you–my attention was caught. You made me look at this picture several times, because what I was reading was not exactly what I was seeing. The writing here seems more to be scandalizing click-bait–Mary’s “stinging side-eye,” the “sassy” Virgin, whom you portray as a “queen bee”–than the result of careful visual attention. Misleading descriptions abound–particularly when describing the main figures; at times I wonder if you’re looking at the same picture that is shown here. Where is the “chartreuse veil” for example that you say is worn by Elizabeth? It is in fact off-white, and her chartreuse gown likely suggests fertility rather than a dowdy fashion statement. And importantly, Mary does not “glance” at anyone, and Elizabeth’s face is not “expressionless.” The pair’s penetrating, interlocked gazes are equally subtly expressive of knowledge, tenderness, intimacy and joy. While they are different, they clearly identify with one-another.

    By the way, the Immaculate Conception refers to Mary’s immaculate nature, which, according to Catholic teaching, was given her at conception, freeing her from the Original Sin and therefore making her a suitable vessel for the Son of God. Since your quote from Luke suggests that Elizabeth’s pregnancy coincides with her being filled with the Holy Spirit at the sight of Mary, it makes sense that their profiled expressions would communicate the depth of their understanding such a miracle.

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