Visual Analysis Tutorial

Gerard David, The Annunciation, c. 1490 Oil on oak panel, 13 11/16 X 9 3/16” Detroit Institute of Art
Gerard David, The Annunciation, c. 1490
Oil on oak panel, 13 11/16 X 9 3/16”
Detroit Institute of Art

First Draft
The following description is an example of an incomplete and undeveloped description of Gerard David’s Annunciation:

“Gerard David’s The Annunciation is a small panel depicting the story of the Annunciation.  The Virgin Mary is placed in an ordinary interior, and is visited by an angel who tells her that she will be the mother of Jesus.”

Second Draft
Here is a second draft that provides much more descriptive detail, and also captures something of the sentiment of the piece

“Gerard David’s The Annunciation is a small panel depicting the Annunciation to the Virgin.  The scene takes place in a well-furnished bedroom that seems too small to contain its inhabitants. Mary is placed in the foreground, kneeling at a small wooden stool with an open bible placed on top.  A decorative vase with lilies (symbolic of the Virgin’s purity) is placed prominently on the floor next to her, and a blue sack, which probably protected the bible she is reading, is strewn casually on the floor.

Diminutive in size, Mary appears youthful with her long locks of blond hair and serene expression.  She wears a simple red dress, with a voluminous blue cloak that gathers in heavy folds on the floor around her.  With one hand placed gently on the open bible, she raises the other to her chest in a gesture of surprise.  Above her head hovers the dove of the Holy Spirit, surrounded by a golden halo.

The angel floats weightlessly in the small cramped space, casting a distinct shadow onto the ground.  His great wings span the width of the room, and his drapery flutters about him as if swept by a great wind.  Like Mary, the Angel’s hair is golden, and seems to glow like a halo.  While Mary gestures in surprise at the Angel’s unexpected visit, she does not look directly at him, but instead gazes off into space, as if she can only sense his divine presence.

Third Draft:  Placing the work in context
This draft begins with a clearly defined thesis that places the description in the context of an argument:

In the middle ages, religious images were often unrealistic.  Holy figures were distinguished from earthly beings by the use of hieratic scale and golden halos, and they were generally depicted against a flat gold background symbolic of heaven.  Gerard David’s The Annunciation is a small panel depicting the Annunciation to the Virgin.  Unlike medieval images that portrayed religious subjects as unrealistic symbols, David humanizes the story by portraying Mary and the Angel as believably human characters, and by placing them in an earthly setting we can relate to.

Instead of using the flat gold background common in medieval religious paintings, Gerard David places his figures in a believable earthly setting.  Using the newly discovered oil medium, the objects in the room are rendered in such vivid detail that they seem tangible and real, while the use of empirical perspective creates a convincing illusion of depth, though the room seems too small to contain its inhabitants.

The scene takes place in a well-furnished bedroom, with a heavily draped bed to the right, and a wall of shuttered windows to the left.  Mary is placed in the foreground, kneeling at a small wooden stool with an open bible placed on top.  A decorative vase with lilies (symbolic of the Virgin’s purity) is placed prominently on the floor next to her, and a blue sack, which probably protected the bible she is reading, is strewn casually on the floor.

Diminutive in size, Mary appears youthful with her long locks of blond hair and serene expression.  No longer distinguished by a halo or hieratic scale to indicate her divinity, she is portrayed as a flesh and blood woman.  The artist uses subtle gradations of light and shade to give her body volume and weight.  She wears a simple red dress, with a voluminous blue cloak that gathers in heavy folds on the floor around her.  With one hand placed gently on the open bible, she raises the other to her chest in a gesture of surprise.  Above her head hovers the dove of the Holy Spirit, surrounded by a golden halo.

The angel floats weightlessly in the small cramped space, casting a distinct shadow onto the ground, as if to emphasize the physicality of this spiritual apparition.  His great wings span the width of the room, and his drapery flutters about him as if swept by a great wind.  Like Mary, the Angel’s hair is golden, and glows like a natural substitute for a halo.  While Mary gestures in surprise at the Angel’s unexpected visit, she does not look directly at him, but instead gazes off into space, as if she can only sense his divine presence.

Conclusion

Gerard David’s The Annunciation exemplifies the humanist approach to religious subjects that became common in the Netherlands in the 15th century.  Departing from the unrealistic style of the middle ages, he portrays Mary and the Angel as believably human characters, occupying a space that seems to be an extension of our own world.  By “bringing the divine down to earth” in this way, he made religion something real that people could relate to in a direct and personal way.

Resources

Melissa Hall, “Art Before the Renaissance,” Art 109 Renaissance to Modern, Westchester Community College http://art109wcc.wordpress.com/lectures/art-before-the-renaissance-home/

Melissa Hall, “Painting in Burgundy and Flanders,” Art 109 Renaissance to Modern, Westchester Community College http://art109wcc.wordpress.com/lectures/painting-in-flanders-and-burgundy/

Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, “1300-1400 Proto Renaissance,” Smarthistory Web Book, Khan Academy,
http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/proto-renaissance.html

“Humanism in the Renaissance,” The Renaissance Connection, Allentown Art Museum
http://www.renaissanceconnection.org/lesson_social_humanism.html