The Visitation tells the story of the meeting between Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, and her older cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist (Luke 1:36–42). Rembrandt centers the narrative around the two cousins, bathed in a supernatural glow. From the elderly Zacharias, husband of Elizabeth, easing himself down the stairs with the help of a young boy, to Joseph climbing up the hill leading his donkey, the figures are linked by a series of gestures that stress the intimacy and emotions that bind the characters.
Animals play a meaningful part in this painting. The dog, while providing a touch of informality, symbolizes faithfulness. The peacock watching over her chicks, a symbol of pride and vanity, is also a symbol for Christ, because it represents the incorruptibility of his flesh.
This painting may relate directly to Rembrandt’s life. The face of Elizabeth is reminiscent of the artist’s mother, who died in 1640 just as his wife was about to give birth.