Four Hands, Many Meanings

"There's almost a little pause that you see between the two hands."—Melanie Holcomb, curator

Master Heinrich of Constance (German, active in Constance, ca. 1300). The Visitation, ca. 1310–20. Walnut, paint, gilding, rock-crystal cabochons inset in gilt-silver mounts. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.724). Learn more about this object.

How does the sculpted body communicate? Hear from Met experts, leading authorities, and rising stars, each with a unique viewpoint on the language of gesture, facial expression, and pose.

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Melanie Holcomb: This is a sculpture from the early fourteenth century that shows the moment recounted in the Bible where Mary, who is pregnant with the baby Jesus, encounters her relative, Elizabeth, who is pregnant with her son, John the Baptist.

Narrator: Two actors experiment with recreating the sculpture's pose.

Jennifer Morris: When I was trying to communicate what I felt the sculpture was about, it felt like I had to be really serene in my face, because the body felt so formal.

Quincy Tyler Bernstine: I had all of this tension here in my body, but I was relaxed and comfortable when we had our hands touching.

Jennifer Morris: And it seems like that's where they're supporting each other.

Narrator: Notice the figures' left hands: Elizabeth's on her heart, and Mary's touching Elizabeth's shoulder.

Melanie Holcomb: It's an intriguing gesture to me. If one looks carefully at those hands, you see they don't actually quite touch. There's almost a little pause that you see between the two hands. I particularly love Elizabeth's hand, the one that is raised up over her heart. You know, hands in Medieval art regularly serve as gestures or indications of speech. There's a speech scroll that says what Elizabeth is saying, which is something to the effect of, "Who am I, to be so honored as to meet the mother of God?"

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