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Piero di Cosimo’s Visitation altarpiece (with an appendix on the handclasp gesture) Sexsmith, Dennis Watson

Abstract

Piero di Cosimo's Santo Spirito Visitation is examined in its historical and religious context, and the extent to which a specific sign gesture contributes to the meaning of the work is determined. The first chapter outlines the establishment of the feast and considers doctrinal interpretations of the Visitation. This is followed by a survey of the visual iconography of the theme in Early Christian, medieval, and early Renaissance art. A history of the handclasp is contained in a separate appendix. This follows the gesture from the dextrarum iunctio of Rome, through medieval uses reflected in visual sources, to the diversification of uses in fifteenth century art. Attention is given to distinctions of meaning in Christian and humanist imagery, as determined through textual and visual evidence. The meaning of Piero di Cosimo's Santo Spirito Visitation is presented in the final chapter. This discussion covers reasons for the importance of Florence in the emergence of the autonomous Visitation altarpiece, the relationship of the work to the theme's role as an instrument of church unity, the function of the painting as a personal donation of the Capponi family, and the specific part played by the theme of rebirth and renewal in this work. The figures of Mary and Elizabeth mark the commencement of the messianic era by a handclasp which represents the renewed union between god and man. A brief discussion of the post-Piero di Cosimo use of the handclasp Visitation follows. A further discussion of Piero di Cosimo's religious iconography is contained in the first appendix.

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