Luca della Robbia
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Luca della Robbia made this almost life-size in the round glazed terracotta sculpture of the Visitation for the altar of the confraternity of St. Elizabeth in San Giovanni Fuorcivitas in the early 1440s. A document of 1445 records the purchase of an oil lamp to burn before the statue. Sixteenth-century documents refer to veils and a tabernacle for the sculptural group. These documents attest to the active devotion inspired by these statues throughout the Renaissance and remind us that the brilliant white reflective surface would have been seen by the flickering light of an oil lamp in a dark church, and that the work would have been framed , adorned, and it seems at times hidden -- to be dramatically revealed on feast days. Before this, large sculptural groups had been made of the Annunciation and Deposition, but not, as far as I know, of the Visitation. In painting, the Visitation was generally depicted with St. Elizabeth bowing slightly lower than Mary (as required by the story), but with both figures standing. Perhaps because this sculptural group was placed at an altar, at which the devoted would kneel, to dramatize the moment, or to ensure that Mary was visible, Luca made Elizabeth kneel, and exaggerated the generally depicted age difference, making Mary a young maiden and unsparingly detailing the topography of Elizabeth's wrinkled face. This tender and very human interaction between old and young woman made out of humble clay is then elevated and abstracted by the overall use of brilliant shining white glaze. Restricting the use of other colours to the eyes emphasizes the locked gazes. (Some scholars also saw traces of gilding.) The group is composed of four interlocking elements, with the seams camouflaged by folds of fabric. (The first photo was taken at the Chiesa di San Leone, Pistoia, in March 2018 and the details at the National Gallery, Washington, DC, in February 2017.) Photograph(s) licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.