A Very Welcome Visitation

A Very Welcome Visitation

A Very Welcome Visitation
The primer in Englishe and Latine, set out along, after the vse of Sarum …At London : Imprinted at London by Jhon Kyngston and Henry Sutton, 1557.
Canterbury Cathedral Library, H/L-4-10

This woodcut image of the Virgin Mary visiting her cousin St Elizabeth is known as the Visitation, which scene was used to mark the office of Lauds (the second office of the day) in books of hours and primers ( see here for the Annunciation used for the opening office of Prime).

This woodcut is found in a primer, the successor prayer book to books of hours, printed in London in 1557 during the reign of Mary I. The image shows the moment when St Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist, meets Mary after the latter had ‘got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea’ (Luke 1:39). Mary is the younger figure to the left of the image with Elizabeth’s greater age and non-virginal state indicated by her headdress, which is a deliberate contrast to Mary’s loose hair. Although the Bible reference states that Mary was in the house of Zechariah when she greeted her cousin, the traditional iconography shows the two women outside, generally alone and often shown by the city gate. The location by a gate outside city walls is a very significant one as it would have acted as a pictorial reminder of the immaculate conception of Mary herself by her parents, Anne and Joachim. The feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (8 December) was widely celebrated from early medieval times and the image used to portray the occasion was generally of Anne and Joachim as lone figures engaged in a gentle embrace outside the Golden Gate of Jerusalem: ‘and Anna stood by the gate, and saw Joachim coming, and she ran and hung upon his neck, saying: Now I know that the Lord God has blessed me exceedingly…and I the childless shall conceive’(Apocryphal Book of James, VI: 4). Thus, through shared imagery, depictions of the Visitation showing Mary, pregnant with an immaculately conceived child, are strongly linked to the occasion of her own immaculate conception by St Anne.

The two kinswomen in the 1557 woodcut are shown on the point of embrace, with their hands reaching towards each other. Other depictions show the two fondly holding each other closely and, in so-doing, bringing together the two unborn infants of Jesus and John the Baptist, who famously leaped for joy in his mother’s womb when Elizabeth heard Mary’s salutation (Luke 1:41). Paintings of the two infants together became a popular theme in the Renaissance, with a famous representation by Leonardo Da Vinci being held in the National Gallery London.

Fundamentally, this woodcut is a copy of an established medieval image with very few attempts at the sophistications of shading, expression and superior compositions that could be found in other printed primers at this time. Yet, it is effective in its economy. Looking a little deeper into simplistic pictures can be revealing. We have already seen that loose hair versus headdress allows the viewer to differentiate between the two women, but also, that Elizabeth has her back to the city wall shows that she has come from inside and therefore that Mary has been travelling towards it. Furthermore, an idea of timing is shown; as the women have yet to fully embrace the indication is that Mary has only just arrived, which emphasises the important moment of the very first contact between Jesus and John the Baptist. Although both women are important Christian saints to be emulated, the purity and simplicity of Mary’s character is strengthened by the contrast in dress between the kinswomen, with Mary’s plain garb being accentuated by the patterning and fitted nature of Elizabeth’s. Finally, trees in plain compositions are often used to express the idea of exterior, but here it is also probably a reference to Christ as the ‘Tree of Life’, and, of course, possibly an indication of His death ‘upon a tree’.

This particular primer was produced in an interesting point in English religious history. The Protestant Reformation that had begun in Henry VIII’s reign had been greatly accelerated in the reign of his son, Edward VI. Edward’s brief reign (January 1547-July 1553) meant that the consolidation of Protestantism was halted when he was succeeded by his Catholic half-sister, Mary, daughter from Henry’s first marriage to Katherine of Aragon. During Edward’s reign, the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer had seen the overthrow of Catholic primers in England and, with it, the cessation of the use of the traditional Virgin based woodcut images, such as the Annunciation and Visitation. The return to Catholicism under Mary I meant a reinstatement of the Catholic liturgy and the return of some of the images that had always accompanied it. However, the nature of primers did not simply return to the Catholicism pre-Reformation. As can be seen, the page holds both English and Latin text rather than just traditional Latin. In fact, the English text receives greater attention through its larger size and space allowance per page. There were also changes to the textual content in the primers produced officially under Mary’s regime (as opposed to importations from France) with the omission of the pre-Reformation inclusions of indulgences and miraculous legends. Mary’s reign was even shorter than her brother’s (July 1553-November 1558), which means that the return to Catholicism was a brief, if dramatic, interruption to the consolidation of Protestantism. Elizabeth I’s accession in 1558 meant a return to the Book of Common Prayer. Therefore, this image of the Visitation printed in this 1557 primer is among the very last to ever be printed in conjunction with the liturgy in England, as Mary died just one year later and only two other primers were produced (by John Wayland) in the intervening time.

Jayne Wackett: Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Kent and Editor of ‘Picture this…’
Further Reading:

  • E. Hoskins, Horae Beatae Mariae Virginis, or, Sarum and York Primers with Kindred Books and Primers of the Reformed Roman Use (London: 1901)