Jacopo Pontormo painted the Visitation (1514–16) for the Church of the Annunciation in Florence, Italy, where the fresco remains. The scene depicts the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth (Luke 1:39–45). Elizabeth is the first person to confess that Jesus, even in the womb, is “my Lord” (1:43). Pontormo offers a creative depiction of the scene, adding various details to shape the viewer’s interpretation. Unlike the biblical narrative, Pontormo’s fresco is filled with an entourage of characters. In a complex combination of hand gestures, Joseph and Zechariah guide the viewer to the scene. In the upper portion, the painting depicts the sacrifice of Isaac, suggesting a parallel between the faith of Abraham and Mary, united by the common sacrifice of their sons. Flanking Abraham and Isaac are two angels holding Latin inscriptions which apply to both scenes. Translated they read: “S/he [Mary/Abraham] owes him [Isaac/Jesus] to God” and “Nor does he [God] promise in vain.” In Pontormo’s visual interpretation, God’s promise to provide Abraham with offspring finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ. A third inscription, “Look favorably Most Excellent God,” on the wall between the two scenes unites the two by invoking divine favor upon both Abraham’s and Mary’s faithfulness. A prophet with a codex bears witness to the event.
This story is full of echoes—most famously, Mary's song echoes Hannah's. But there is another echo: Elizabeth's praise of Mary, which gets taken up into the Hail Mary, is an echo of Deborah's song in Judges 5.
In the latest issue of the Century, Philip Jenkins writes about how the veneration of Mary cuts across religious difference in Egypt. Egypt was the place where Mary first lit up the imaginations of Christians, but apparently her appeal is not limited by culture or religious heritage. Lately I’ve come across a couple of enchanting books that illuminate this for me.
I once read Luke 1 on a park bench during a jazz festival. I was practicing the art of reading scripture in an unusual location to see what this reveals in a familiar text. I pictured Mary as a jazz singer.