Rembrandt van Rijn, The Visitation, 1640. Oil on cedar panel, Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit.
The Visitation depicts the reunion of the Virgin Mary and her older cousin Elizabeth, both of whom are miraculously pregnant, Mary with Jesus and Elizabeth with John the Baptist. Rembrandt uses a beam of light to highlight the head and shoulders of the main figure—Mary—while leaving everything else in shadow. Elizabeth enters into this light as she reaches out to embrace Mary. Only after our eyes adjust to the darkness do the animals and four secondary figures in the scene—Joseph, Zacharius, and two young servants—emerge from the shadows. This theatrical effect is intensified by the painting’s tiny format that demands the viewer’s intimate engagement with the picture.