"Of all religious subjects, that of the Annunciation is closest to the artist as a Christian. The subject is described only by Luke, patron saint of painters, who was popularly believed to have been a master of their craft as well as a physician."1
Flemish painting was founded in the Low Countries at the start of the fifteenth century. The Low Countries, consisting of what is now Belgium and Holland, as well as the provinces of Artois and Hainault, and the cities of Arras and Cambrai.2 "No other artists give quite the same sensation of being free to see, through a window of a picture frame, a vanished world preserved in all completeness, as a piece of amber preserves the fragile detail of an insect from centuries ago."3
Though many artists and works of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are considered to be of Flemish origin, the reality is that artists, either due to intrigue with their area, or for economic reasons, chose to make their home or place of work in the region. Many of the more famous Flemish artists spent their childhood in Germany, France, or just outside of the Flemish territory. By paying or earning their way into these communities, artists became known as Flemish, and because so many talented people worked closely together, a similarity of style developed, thus we have the Flemish style of painting. Not one artist should be considered to be the greatest painter of the region because quite a few were able to distinguish themselves from the generic, and thus developed their ow individual ways of presenting their ideas.
The Annunciation is one of the most popular biblical scenes depicted in the early northern renaissance painting community. By focusing on this one particular scene, as painted by artists considered to be great at their craft in the Flemish region, either by birth or by employment, it is possible to note the individual style of each, and therefore, prove that not one of these artists should be considered the best'.
Master Bertram, from Minden, in Westphalia, was the earliest documented painter for whom exist extant panels. The head of a large workshop, he settled in Hamburg from 1367-1415. In 1410, he was elected Deacon of the painter's guild. During is career, he traveled to Rome to heighten his knowledge of painting and other artists.4
One of the largest Gothic shrines, measuring twenty-four by six feet when opened, the Saint Peter Altarpiece from 1379 was one of Master Bertram's most impressive works.5 All of the sections of this polyptych have the narrative in rich, bright colors playing against the contrast of the bold, golden background. Though there was very little attempt at creating a three-dimensional background, the charm in the work is evident.
The Annunciation scene from this altarpiece, 31 1/2 x 21 5/8", shows Mary, interrupted from her reading by Gabriel, who holds a ribboned banner arcing Mary's head. The Holy Father sends out a child carrying a cross, following a white dove, at Mary. God the Father has features which are lightly sketched in red, which suggests his pure being. Gabriel, although set in a harsher stance, also has the soft red tints, alluding to the angel as someone between human and divine natures.6
While not as popular as Jan van Eyck or Gerard David, Master Bertram used large size and eminent charm to his advantage, setting apart his work from others of his era. The symbolism is subtle and the technique is more simple than others, but this was very early in the Northern Renaissance evolution, and for that reason, Master Bertram can be seen as one of the first artists of that time to evolve into the newer style of painting.
Jan van Eyck was born possibly at Maaseyck, near Maastricht. Around 1422-4, he worked for John of Bavaria at The Hague.7 Jan lived in Lille until the end of 1429. As one of the first Early Netherlandish artists to sign paintings, Jan's "work combined meticulous technique, detailed observation, and...
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Conway, M.P., Sir Martin. The Van Eycks and Their Followers. London: John Murray, 1921.
Davies, Martin. The Early Netherlandish School. London: National Gallery Publications, 1968.
Dumont, Georges-Henri. Hans Memling. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1966.
Eisler, Colin. Early Netherlandish Painting. London: Philip Wilson Publishers, LTD., 1989.
Friedlander, Max J. From Van Eyck to Bruegel. New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.
Hasting, Julia. Annunciation. London, Phaidon Press Limited, 2000.
Richardson, E.P. Flemish Painting of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, 1936.
Snyder, James. Northern Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, the Graphic Arts from 1350-1575. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1985.
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