VISITATION (Lat. from visitare, frequentative form of visere, to look at, go to see, visit, videre, to see), an act of visiting, or going to see, a formal visit. The use of the word for an act of divine retributive justice, or generally of an occurrence of grave import, such as a plague or famine, is due mainly to Biblical phraseology, as in “the day of visitation” (Isa. x. 3). For the duty of bishops of the Roman Church to visit periodically the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul at Rome, the Visitatio Liminium Apostolorum, see Bishop. The specific application of the term is to a formal periodical visit paid by a superior authority to an institution or to a district for the purpose of investigation, examination or the like. There are three classes of such visitations: ecclesiastical, charitable and heraldic. Ecclesiastical visitations, originally the periodical journeys of personal inspection to ascertain the temporal and spiritual condition of each parish, form part of the functions of an archbishop, a bishop and an archdeacon. All charitable corporations are at law subject to visitation; the functions of the “visitors” have been largely taken over by the Board of Charity Commissioners. Colleges at a university are regarded in law as charitable institutions, and each college has a “visitor” whose duty it is to represent the founder and see that his wishes are carried out. Heraldic visitations were perambulations made by a king-at-arms or other high heraldic officer with a commission under the Great Seal to examine into pedigrees and claims to bear arms. The results of these visitations were entered in “Visitation Books,” which are in the nature of official records; their admissibility as evidence, though claimed, is judicially questioned as containing merely experts' statements from the families to whom they refer (D'Arcy de Knayth Peerage Case, 1901). These heraldic visitations ceased about 1686.
In addition to these specific meanings may be mentioned the festival of the “Visitation of Mary,” in commemoration of the visit of the Virgin to Elizabeth, mother of St John the Baptist, celebrated in the Roman, Greek and other churches on the 2nd of July, and the office of the English Church, the “Visitation of the Sick,” ordered for the spiritual comfort and benefit of sick persons.
For the international law relating to the right of belligerent vessels to “visit and search” neutral vessels in time of war, see Search, Right of.