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Medieval Wall Painting
in the
English Parish Church

Salisbury (St Thomas), Wiltshire (†Salisbury [Sarum]) C.15

The Visitation

Visitation, St Thomas, Salisbury

Paintings of the Visitation, the post-Annunciation meeting of the Virgin Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, then awaiting the birth of the child who would become John the Baptist, are now quite rare in the English church. Possibly, and despite the fact that the event is Scriptural, this is because incidents in the Life of the Virgin came in for particular iconoclastic attention. But some medieval churchmen seem to have found depictions of a visibly pregnant Virgin (or Elizabeth) indecorous in themselves, so constraints of this kind may have been operating.

But the painter here clearly had no reservations about making the pregnancies very explicit through the gestures of Mary and her cousin. Mary, her hair loose in token of her perpetual virginity, is at the left, with Elizabeth, soberly dressed as a matron of the day, to the right. Further right is the blue and pale red doorway of Elizabeth’s house, and along the horizon in the background are several trees.

The painting, in the Lady Chapel, sits between the Annunciation to its left and the Adoration of the Magi to its right. The symbolic lily-pots and the Orders of the Garter painted on the background form a repeating pattern surrounding all three subjects. All of them, in common with the famous but thoroughly problematic Doom at Salisbury have been restored, probably several times; of the three subjects, this is the most sensitively restored, I think.

The Order of the Garter, incidentally, is believed to be there because the Bishop at the time was also Chancellor of the Order. And perhaps ‘Evil to him who evil thinks’¹ was thought to be an apposite response to the impending miraculous births here.

Website for St Thomas Becket, Salisbury

¹ ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’, motto of the Order of the Garter