Gendered space and female agency in Jacopo da Pontormo’s 1516 Visitazione fresco

Joanna Collicutt is a psychologist of religion with an interest in psychological biblical interpretation and the arts. In addition to many publications in clinical psychology, neuroscience, and theology (including Jesus and the Gospel Women published by SPCK I 2009), she is a contributor to the Visual Commentary on Scripture (https://thevcs.org/). She holds an MA in Christianity and the Arts from King’s College London and is about to begin doctoral studies in this subject.


Vistazione Jacopo da Pontormo (1528-29)
Oil on paint (2.02×1.56m)
Altarpiece for Pieve di San Michele in Carmignano near Florence

This fresco is part of a series by leading artists of Cinquecento Florence depicting the life of the Virgin in the Chiostro dei Voti  of the basilica of Santissima Annunziata, the mother church of the Servite order. It was commissioned to celebrate the election of Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici as pope in 1514.

The social context is one of jostling for power, reflected in the composition in which twenty-one human figures are squeezed into the available space. The fresco is full of movement, with figures gazing in different directions as if pursuing individual agendas, poised in the midst of activities, creating a kind of visual noise like a crowded marketplace. At the centre, forming a still point, are two pregnant women, Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, greeting each other in a depiction of an episode from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:39-56). The biblical narrative grants them a fair degree of independent agency, indicating that Mary travelled to see Elizabeth alone and presenting this as an exclusively female encounter.

In the fresco the women are in the public square but according to Alberti’s Della Familgia it would be unthinkable for them to ‘busy themselves among the men’, and certainly not independently and unchaperoned.[1] Elizabeth appears to be placing Mary’s hand on her belly so that she can feel her own baby (John)  move in an apparently intimate woman-to-woman gesture. But the fingertips of Mary’s other hand are touched by Joseph, and both appear to be blessed by Zachariah. There is a sense then that these women remain under the benevolent control of their husbands.

Any further anxieties about their independent agency are allayed by the figure of Luke the Evangelist, who stands in a dominant position to the right inscribing their story for them. The words between these two women (forming what we now know as the Hail Mary and the Magnificat) are only available to us through his editorial pen. The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) is particularly instructive. Based on the Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10), it opens by praising God for his mighty act in magnifying Mary’s status, almost drawing her into the divine nature (v. 49). Mary’s pregnancy has arisen through God and ‘[not]…a husband’s will’ (John 1:13). Yet the song concludes ‘Abraham and his seed forever’ (v.55). It is as if, in the midst of the female rejoicing Luke needs to have the last word, closing it down with a statement of patrilineage.

As if in confirmation, Abraham himself is placed at the apex of the composition, almost unnoticed due to its current state of deterioration (it was last restored in 1958).  He is wielding a knife over his son Isaac, naked, bound and ready to be sacrificed, flanked by two putti holding tablets whose inscriptions are now indecipherable. This mysterious and disturbing incident from the long story of Abraham concerns his willingness to sacrifice his own son out of obedience to God’s command (Genesis 22). The sacrifice is averted at the last minute and God provides a ram to substitute for the child (just visible in the painting). The image introduces a sense of violent threat to the joy of the two women at the new life within them, darkening the mood, with a reminder that childbirth is hazardous and that joy in pregnancy is always provisional.

The juxtaposition of the stories of Mary and Elizabeth and Abraham and Isaac is unconventional, if not unprecedented in Christian iconography of the time, and has posed an interpretative challenge to scholars.[2] I suggest that it is elucidated by anthropological studies of the role of animal blood sacrificial male puberty rituals. These argue that such rituals establish unequivocal patrilineage in patriarchal societies. Nancy Jay goes so far as to describe blood sacrifice as ‘a remedy for having been born of woman.’[3] It makes verbal sense of the way Luke wields his pen in those last words of the Magnificat, and visual sense of both his presence and that of the knife-wielding Abraham.

The compositional space is strictly segregated by gender, with males on the right and females on the left, separated from each other by Abraham’s knife. In establishing patrilineage blood sacrificial rites effectively ‘cut the apron strings’; in order to become a man the boy must separate psychologically from his mother.[4] The forlorn looking figures of the woman and pubescent boy seated on the steps can perhaps be seen in this light.

Vistazione Jacopo da Pontormo (1528-29)
Oil on paint (2.02×1.56m)
Altarpiece for Pieve di San Michele in Carmignano near Florence

Yet the feminine cannot be so easily suppressed and in this painting a counter-narrative, the fruit and cereal sacrifices characteristic of matrifocal societies, is subtly signalled by the tall female figure who mirrors Luke the Evangelist. She bears a striking resemblance to Dovizia, the de facto guardian of Florence,a personification of wealth, abundance, and charity who is always portrayed carrying the fruits of the earth, usually in a basket on her head, and sometimes with lactating breasts or surrounded by small children.[5] This assertive symbol of female reproductive power anticipates Pontormo’s  later 1529 treatment of this subject in which the multifaceted women dominate the space, their now husbands miniscule and marginalised figures.

[1]   Leon Battista Alberti, The Family in Renaissance Florence, Books One-Four, trans. by Renée Neu Watkins (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 2004), p. 207.

[2] Jack Wasserman , ‘Jacopo Pontormo’s Florentine Visitation: The Iconography’, Artibus et Historiae, 16.32 (1995) 

[3] Nancy Jay, ‘Sacrifice as remedy for having been born of woman’, Immaculate and Powerful: The Female in Sacred Image and Social Reality, ed. Clarissa Atkinson, Constance Buchanan, and Margaret Miles (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985), 283-309.

[4] William Beers, Women and sacrifice: Male narcissism and the psychology of religion ((Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1992), 137-146.

[5] Ian Suttie, The Origins of Love and Hate (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Trubner, 1935); Patricia Simons, ‘The Social and Religious Context of Iconographic Oddity: Breastfeeding in Ghirlandaio’s Birth of the Baptist’, Medieval and Renaissance Lactations, ed.  Jutta Gisela Sperling (New York: Routledge, 2013), 213-234 (here, 221).


Bibliography

Alberti, L.B., The Family in Renaissance Florence, Books One-Four, trans. by Renée Neu Watkins (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 2004).

Beers, W., Women and sacrifice: Male narcissism and the psychology of religion ((Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1992), 137-146.

Jay, N., ‘Sacrifice as remedy for having been born of woman’, Immaculate and Powerful: The Female in Sacred Image and Social Reality, ed. Clarissa Atkinson, Constance Buchanan, and Margaret Miles (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985), 283-309.

Simons, P., ‘The Social and Religious Context of Iconographic Oddity: Breastfeeding in Ghirlandaio’s Birth of the Baptist’, Medieval and Renaissance Lactations, ed.  Jutta Gisela Sperling (New York: Routledge, 2013), 213-234.

Suttie, I., The Origins of Love and Hate (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Trubner, 1935).

Wasserman, J., ‘Jacopo Pontormo’s Florentine Visitation: The Iconography’, Artibus et Historiae, 16.32 (1995). 

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