“The Annunciation” by David is quite incredible! I sat for two hours, on the floor of the Met jotting notes, in order to fully appreciate the painting’s message. I have truly been inspired with what I was able to see for myself, as well as engaging the various persons stopping to view such a masterpiece.
David is a brilliant painter, he was born 1455 and died in 1523 and his work is “Netherlandish.” “The Annunciation” is merely one part of an entire multi-storied polyptych. The medium is oil on wood and was originally commissioned in 1506, by Vincenzo Sauli; a wealthy banker and diplomat for the high alter of the Benedictine Abby Church of San Gerolamo Della Cervara, near Genoa. The ensemble created a synthesis of northern and Italian artistic modes. David achieved a rare balance between detailed description and elevated exposition.
To begin, “The Annunciation” is actually two panels standing side by side, complimenting one another, with the action of the Holy Spirit approaching Mary to impregnate her with the Christ child, through the gesture by the angel of annunciation. This is a common motif among many Renaissance artists, but David really captures the moment. The two paintings are an estimated 3′ x 4′ each, and are spaced well, at approximately 8″ for full effect.
The angel of annunciation stands alone on the left panel. He is dressed in soft-toned, light blue, raiment that achieves a “flowing” action about him. The almost iridescent cape, of red and green color, is inscribed with Latin phrasing that disappears within the folds and creases. Motion is achieved through the gesture of action, as the angel signals the dove, the Holy Spirit in the right panel, to approach the virgin.
Action is further hinted at, by the bent knees, as seen through the clothing, as well as with very distinct gestures from his hands. By creating a mood or anticipatory action, David lets the angel tell whoever is viewing the painting, that he captured that moment in time as he saw it happen. The gesture of command with the angel’s right hand sets a triangular format between the two paintings. It connects them and allowed for me to follow from one panel to the next. His left hand begins a secondary triangle, but with the addition of a three sectioned golden scepter. The scepter is extended upward, toward the area between the paintings, and appears to be pointing toward the heavens. The top of the scepter has a pointed crown at the top, with a spiral mid section, and finally a smooth handgrip at the bottom.
The room itself is a contemporary setting for that time. It is of a simple design with one double pained window and almost no furniture items. The window itself is split into four wooden storm panels. The two bottom ones are closed and locked, with a simple metal latch, but the top panes reveal a view upward into the heavens through lattice made of metal as well. Nothing recognizable can be seen through the glass, other than the soft tones of a blue sky with clouds. The upper storm doors open inward, invitingly towards the angel.
The flooring in both rooms is comprised of a type of small section tile that alternates between an almost ivory tone, and is complimented by a soft rose colored alternation in the concentric pattern. Additionally, laid within the tiles, is another pattern also. The other pattern is set, (alternating), with a softer blue that the angel’s raiment and a light shade of green. The tile lines, as with the overall perspective of the pieces, head toward the top area between the paintings, following the line of the scepter. Although the story is supposed to be in the same room, David seems to have made the same room, in actuality, two separate places. One note of importance is that in the right panel, the floor on which Mary is has a hole on lower left corner on the bottom. There is a stone barrier, or edging, that seems to allow for her separation from the dark void that is visible through that hole. I feel that David is attempting to show that her separation is from the world below, and the annunciation is occurring on a higher plane than that of that same ungodly world.
The walls on each painting are primarily set with wooden panels, but the left portrait has bluish fresco-type cement topping it about halfway up. The blue of the cement is slightly darker than that of the angel’s clothing, and allows again, for the angel to stand out from the painting, and out from the corner of the room itself. There is a fireplace behind the angel, although he stands before it and blocks one’s view, in order to break up the flatness of the wall.
The expression on the angel’s face seems as if he is saying, even without words, that everything will be fine; a sort of warmth emanating from within. Aiding the warmth, are two burgundy pillows, lying across the bench along the wall. They appear very soft and comfortable, as with the scene. In turn, they connect the left half of the dyad, with the right, by completing a line, (horizontal), across to the top of the small wooden table. On that table, is a bible supported by a third, smaller pillow that sits before the Virgin. It’s open to no particular page, but the traditional rendition of David’s painting, such as Robert Campin’s “Merode Altarpiece,” would be consistent with the scene as written: The bible is either open to or implied to the Annunciation. The pages are flapping randomly, and do not reflect any specific point in the book.
The main path of sight originates from the angel, then crossing to the right painting and focusing on the Holy Spirit, the dove, finally to the Virgin. The dove is positioned just off center and above Mary’s head in the top of the scene. The flight-path of that bird leads the ultimate destination to be with Mary. There is a golden radiation with a bluish hue surrounding the bird, from a source behind it. The Virgin has the same radiation emanating from behind her head also, but hers is not as brilliant, and lacks the bluish hue.
Mary’s face appears somber, and quite possibly scared. Her hands lay crossed, open over her chest, as she kneels before the Bible. Her gaze stares right at whoever views this work, but it also stares past them as well. I feel, that the face can be drawn out from the scene further, by the dress she wears. That dress is a brilliant and rich royal blue color, with a golden design along its border. As with the angel’s raiment, the drapery folds created on both figures, is comparable to those of Jan Van Eyck. They produce a depth and feel about them, as with all the fabrics in the paintings.
A white ivory-colored jar flags Mary’s right side. Three white lilies stem from it. Those lilies are signifying the purity in the moment…the holiness. That holiness is added to with a soft red velvet bag lying before her, on the floor. There is a set of rosary without a crucifix spilling out toward Mary from that bag. Since the rosary is dedicated to Mary, I take it as a gift from God for her future role as the mother of the Christian savior, Jesus Christ. A circular path is achieved around the painting from those rosaries, to the dove, and back to the angel. It is a well-balanced portrayal.
Directly behind the Virgin, there is a bed covered in a dark blue cloth. The bedding derives from extensions of that cloth, originating from two tendrils above the view. They come down to engulf the bed all the way to the floor. Again, David’s use of a slightly contrasting shade of blue allowed me to pull from the paintings, all the key elements. Blue is a common motif within “The Annunciation.”
Light symmetry is also a factor of both panels. The left has a brighter appearance. I assume that since the presence of the angel, in addition to the open panels of the upper windows, the set of paintings reveals this difference in that manner. In the right panel, Mary is shrouded in a darker light. This darker appearance may be due to the fact that the Holy Spirit is the “light” for that room, in addition to Mary’s illumination from behind her head. Mary’s illumination appears to be very secondary in the scene.
As I said earlier, perspective lines are implemented to give depth to the work. The only failure that David attained was the bottom shelf on the table, under the bible. That shelf is out of perspective. It took awhile to pick that out though. Aside from that one discrepancy, all elements within the rooms are set beautifully to a multi-point perspective. The main line of sight heads toward the center area between the paintings in a 45-degree pyramidal direction, from the tiles.
David’s other paintings from this polyptych are masterpieces such as “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” “The Crucifixion,” “The Nativity,” and, “Virgin with Child and Four Angels.” I got to see them all. Each one drew my attention away from the Met, and into the scenes. I have truly grown from my visit and will return to this newfound treasure of the arts.
1. Art History: Revised edition; Volume 2; Marilyn Stokstad; Harry N. Abrams Inc, Publishing 1999
2. The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Gerard David “The Annunciation”
3. FA18 @ Suffolk County Community College; 2000