by Gina Loehr
Elizabeth [was] filled with the holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41). So Luke tells us in his Gospel account of the Visitation. As her cousin Mary greets her, the elderly woman, who is nonetheless great with child, speaks through the power of the Spirit: Elizabeth calls Mary “the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43).
For us, it may be routine to hear that Mary is the Mother of God. But Elizabeth would have had no way to know this when Mary appeared on her doorstep. Only the power of God could inform Elizabeth that Mary was carrying the Messiah. Elizabeth stands as a kind of prophet, possessing supernatural knowledge through the influence of the Spirit.
Danish artist Carl Heinrich Bloch, in The Meeting of Mary and Elisabeth(1866), highlighted Elizabeth’s remarkable role. Often we think of the wife of Zechariah as a minor character. Her son, John the Baptist, is hailed as the last of the great prophets, but it seems his mother also possessed the gift of prophecy. She confirmed what the angel Gabriel told Mary when there was no earthly way to prove the promise was true.
Bloch (1834–1890) puts Elizabeth at the forefront of this scene instead of placing Mary as the focal point. Mary’s back is to us as she gazes upward toward her cousin. Elizabeth’s elevated position and front-facing display make her the center of attention. In beholding this arrangement, the viewer stands with Mary in a kind of awe at the commanding presence of Elizabeth.
Bloch also bathed Elizabeth in light and depicted her upon the heights with arms outstretched in a dramatic gesture that calls to mind the presence of the ancient prophets. One can imagine Moses or Elijah standing upon a mountaintop with such a gesture of confidence and authority. Here Bloch uses the stone steps in place of Mount Sinai, giving Elizabeth her lofty prominence. The Lutheran painter thereby visually assigned tremendous authority to this simple woman of the hill country.
This is a fascinating choice, especially for a painting created to adorn the private King’s Oratory in the castle at Frederiksborg in Denmark. The grand project of the oratory, to which Bloch dedicated 18 years, traced major events from the life of Christ across 23 different panels, including this striking Visitation scene. Did the master painter from the Royal Danish Academy of Art wish to remind the royal family that God often speaks to us through those without power or prestige in the eyes of the world?
Mary, too, has her place in Bloch’s depiction, even if Elizabeth is center stage. The artist bestowed on Mary alone the sign of election and holiness: the halo. Yet in the panel of the Annunciation that hangs directly above the Visitation in the castle chapel, Mary does not yet wear the traditional symbol of sanctity. Only after the Incarnation occurs does Bloch award Mary the halo. His arbitrary distinction between Mary’s holiness prior to the Incarnation and her holiness afterward betrays Bloch’s own religious ideology that would have lacked Catholic confidence in Mary’s immaculate conception.
Bloch does, however, adorn the scene with blooming lilies, a symbol of purity placed deliberately beside the Blessed Virgin, whose hand appears to claim them as her own. Thus, her pregnancy is distinguished from Elizabeth’s, for it was Mary who was both a pure virgin and the Mother of God.
Mary’s profile reveals attentive eyes and a smile that rejoices at the presence of her matronly companion. The words of the Spirit-filled Elizabeth must have offered the young virgin mother tremendous hope and consolation. Mary was not alone — someone else understood and rejoiced alongside her in her most unusual of circumstances.
“Blessed are you among women.”
Bloch chose to portray Elizabeth in a posture of benediction, palms up and facing outward toward Mary. Situated thus, she declares a litany of blessings upon the head of the young girl, the future queen of heaven, humbly standing beneath her. “Blessed are you among women” comes the first benediction, followed by “Blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42). And finally, “Blessed are you who believed” (Luke 1:45).
Elizabeth was the first to recognize and proclaim Mary’s profound holiness. In the same breath, this elderly prophetess announces the glory of the Messiah and the glory of the Messiah’s mother. Indeed, these two realities should never be separated. We need not be prophets to understand this. God chose to become man through the cooperation of a woman. Like Elizabeth, may the Spirit inspire us to give honor to the Mother of God.