This picture, placed beneath the figure of the Virgin Annunciate at the east end of the chapel, and necessarily small, (as will be seen by the plan), in consequence of the space occupied by the arch which it flanks, begins the second or lower series of frescoes; being, at the same time, the first of the great chain of more familiar subjects, in which we have the power of comparing the conceptions of Giotto not only with the designs of earlier ages, but with the efforts which subsequent masters have made to exalt or vary the ideas of the principal scenes in the life of the Virgin and of Christ. The two paintings of the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Annunciate hardly provoke such a comparison, being almost statue-like in the calm subjection of all dramatic interest to the symmetrical dignity and beauty of the two figures, leading, as they do, the whole system of the decoration of the chapel; but this of the Salutation is treated with no such reference to the architecture, and at once challenges comparison with the works of later masters.
Nor is the challenge feebly maintained. I have no hesitation in saying, that, among all the renderings of this scene which now exist, I remember none which gives the pure depth and plain facts of it so perfectly as this of Giotto’s. Of majestic women bowing themselves to beautiful and meek girls, both wearing gorgeous robes, in the midst of lovely scenery, or at the doors of Palladian palaces, we have enough; but I do not know any picture which seems to me to give so truthful an idea of the action with which Elizabeth and Mary must actually have met,—which gives so exactly the way in which Elizabeth would stretch her arms, and stoop and gaze into Mary’s face, and the way in which Mary’s hand would slip beneath Elizabeth’s arms, and raise her up to kiss her. I know not any Elizabeth so full of intense love, and joy, and humbleness; hardly any Madonna in which tenderness and dignity are so quietly blended. She not less humble, and yet accepting the reverence of Elizabeth as her appointed portion, saying, in her simplicity and truth, “He that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is His name.” The longer that this group is looked upon, the more it will be felt that Giotto has done well to withdraw from it nearly all accessories of landscape and adornment, and to trust it to the power of its own deep expression. We may gaze upon the two silent figures until their silence seems to be broken, and the words of the question and reply sound in our ears, low as if from far away:
“Whence is this to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?”
“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.”
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