A warm welcome to this year’s Advent in Art series, where we join thousands of others in contemplating artistic works while we wait, wait, wait for Christmas.
For an introduction to this series, and He Qi, the artist featured in 2014, please see the first post, on the Annunciation.
Week 2: The Visitation
The mood of this painting surprised me.
The ‘Visitation’ is traditional church shorthand for Mary’s visit to her older relative Elizabeth. Both women are miraculously pregnant, and their unborn babies are actors in the scene: ‘The moment the sound of your greeting entered my ears the babe in my womb skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.’
It is in this moment of meeting that Mary overflows with both joy and profound theological analysis:
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
But I don’t see any of that in He Qi’s painting of the occasion. (You might like to compare 2012’s Advent in Art painting of this scene.)
I’m aware that I may be missing or misinterpreting all sorts of cultural clues, so I’ll be keen to hear your thoughts and impressions of what’s going on. I’m not even certain which woman is which – do you feel sure?
At first I thought the woman on the left was Mary. I think I first assumed that because of the similar blue dress we saw in the Annunciation painting last week, and also because I was thinking of the Middle East and associated uncovered hair with unmarried status.
But now I think that woman is Elizabeth, hair uncovered (in contrast to the other woman) either for a cultural reason that I have no reference for, or because she is at home. She’s carrying a water jug, which seems more likely for a host than a traveller.
If I’m (now) right, then Mary has her head bowed and her eyes down. This is surely not the moment of babies jumping and women celebrating.
I wonder if it is the ‘before’ picture of what happens in their encounter. Why has Mary even come? Just as significantly, why has this pregnant teenager left home?
The latter is a nearly age-less question. Even in 21st century New Zealand, homes for unsupported pregnant teenagers are needed to welcome young women who have been kicked out of home (among other circumstances).
We have some more information from Matthew’s account of the Nazareth social setting. The shame brought by Mary’s pregnancy was so bad that it prompted her fiancée to decide to break off the engagement quietly – it took an angelic visit to change his mind.
But there’s nothing explicit about that in Luke’s report. He just says that as soon as Mary agreed to bear Jesus, she headed off to Elizabeth’s house. Gabriel, the angel messenger, had told her Elizabeth was in a similar situation. So Mary was probably motivated to go from as well as to.
So here she is, looking subdued as she arrives at Elizabeth’s house. She is a young woman in need: of hospitality, of understanding, of compassion.
And the good news is that she gets it all. But if I’m seeing this painting right, He Qi makes us pause before we celebrate with the two women. It was by no means certain that anyone would understand or accept Mary in her pregnant, unmarried state. She was in a unique situation and couldn’t expect anyone to understand. How alone she must have felt.
What a relief to receive the welcome portrayed in the painting. Elizabeth is still and attentive – eyes open, mouth shut! – and has reached out to take Mary’s hand. She’s holding a water jug, and given that they seem to be meeting on the street, rather than in the house, it looks like she was on her way to fill it, but has allowed herself to be interrupted to offer a kind welcome to Mary. The two women’s heads are bent towards each other. What a loving, close moment they are sharing.
I imagine it lasting some time before the womb-leaping and singing can begin.
So let’s pause, with He Qi, and consider the people in our worlds who are in similar need, and how our acceptance, welcome and love might bring them life and light.
Here are Mark Pierson’s questions and prompts for further reflection (you can have these emailed to you each week by signing up at adventinart.org)
Advent: a waiting place
Two women in similar situations with entirely different stories. Their stories run side by side, coming together at times, moving apart at others.
Two people whose stories are part of a much bigger story of God that neither can yet see or understand.
Who has been with you on your journey this year? At the high points or low points?
How have you come alongside and supported someone near to you; someone in your community; someone in another part of the world?
Each time you light your two candles let your mind roam over the past day and pray for those whose journey has crossed with yours.
Advent in Art is an annual production from Mark Pierson, a worship curator of international influence (see his recent book, The Art of Curating Worship) and currently Christian Commitments Manager for World Vision New Zealand.
You can follow along each week here or at the Advent in Art site where you can sign up for weekly email reflections.
Mark would love to hear if the series is helpful to you. You can contact him at mark.pierson [at] worldvision.org.nz.
You can find last week’s post, for the first Sunday in Advent, here, and previous years’ Advent in Art posts at Sacraparental by following these links:
Please feel free to keep in touch with Sacraparental throughout Advent by following Sacraparental on Facebook (for daily extras), signing up for email updates (the box at the top right) and/or following me on Pinterest (the Advent board will be particularly relevant just now, and I also have one called Art for the Church that you might like).