When I found out I was pregnant with my first child, suddenly there were pregnant women everywhere. I had never noticed them before. Now they were crawling out of the woodwork (or out of the Walmart aisles or parking lots or library bookshelves). I actually lived in the baby delivery capital of the Western World but I had just never paid that much attention to all the bulging bellies around me. Now that I was keenly aware of my own growing discomfort and this amazing baby inside me, I developed some kind of ultra-sensitive pregnancy radar that was going off every time I saw another woman in my same condition. I started keeping tabs on maternity fashions, something I had never given a second thought to. I also noticed for the first time that there were different ways to carry a baby: up high, down low, all over the place (my method of choice). I compared girth. I’d jab my husband and pester him for an opinion “Tell me the truth, honey. Am I really as big as her?”
Once I had been pregnant, I could never ignore a pregnant woman again.
Something similar happened when we were shopping for a new van. The week we narrowed down our selection to a Toyota Sienna, suddenly we noticed Siennas all over the place. I’m sure they had been on the streets all along, but it took a personal connection for them to stand out.
On an even more shallow level, when I’m debating whether to grow out my bangs or chop them off yet again, every person I meet becomes a hair model. My friends probably wonder why I never look them in the eyes when I’m talking to them. I seem to be strangely fixated with their foreheads.
In Piero di Cosimo’s painting of The Visitation (c1490), he shows us the moment where Mary and Elizabeth meet while they are both pregnant. The two women clasp hands as cousins and friends. Mary pats Elizabeth on the shoulder in a gesture of sympathy and understanding. They share more than kinship. They look into each others eyes (note that there’s no hair exposed to distract them) and I think that they see something familiar. Miraculous, surprising events have brought them to this point. I wonder if along with their sacred pregnancies, they carry thoughts and emotions that they have been hesitant to discuss with anyone else. What a relief and comfort this visit must have been to both of them.
Cosimo paints the scene as nearly symmetrical. He balances each element on the left with something of equal weight on the right. In the foreground, Saint Nicholas reads on one side and Saint Anthony writes on the other. Behind Mary is a tiny foreshadowing of the Nativity. Behind Elizabeth is a foreshadowing of the massacre of the innocents. Trees, buildings, space: all mirror each other. It’s as if the women in the center are looking at their own reflections. But Cosimo's side by side treatment also highlights the contrasts. They meet in the middle, but the women come from different places. They are separated by several decades in age. Elizabeth is more stooped, more wrinkled, and her skin is more tanned. Elizabeth raises her hand in a gesture of blessing; someday her own child, John the Baptist, will defer to his cousin Jesus and say he is unworthy to loose his sandals.
The painting makes me think about empathy and the unique insights we gain into the experiences and suffering of others when we have felt something similar ourselves. Ordinarily, we live too much inside our own heads—too separated from strangers, from our neighbors, our friends, or even our family to truly feel what they are feeling. But I’d like to think that everything I experience in life (the good, the bad, and the hairy) grants me more capacity to empathize with others. What I then do with this capacity is up to me.
One more thing that makes this paintings especially fitting for the Christmas season is the fact that Piero di Cosimo included Saint Nicholas in the lower left corner. This is the same Saint Nicholas who has since become associated with Santa Claus. The original Nicholas gave many anonymous gifts to the poor. Even after his death, people in his village continued to make anonymous donations that were often attributed to Saint Nicholas. And thus a tradition of generosity was born. Not a bad legacy for a guy who (from the looks of things) never spent much time worrying about the bangs/no bangs problem.