The Annunciation and the Visitation1393-99
Tempera on wood, 167 x 125 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon
The picture shows the left wing of the Dijon Altarpiece.
The unusual shape of this picture is due to the fact that it formed the side-panel of a triptych, and as such it had to fit the shape of the central shrine containing groups of sculptures. Broederlam endeavoured to fill all empty spaces with a more or less even distribution of painted forms. However, the spectator sees not only the central motif set out on a decoratively arranged plane, but can also look beyond into the depths of both the architectural and landscape aspects of the background.
The Virgin receives the angel in a Gothic hall which is open on both sides; nearby there is a building with a circular ground-plan. Associated with this building we can see a hall running parallel with the plane of the picture, and ending at a two-storeyed building which is Italian in character. The architectural ensemble is rather loosely organized, because the painter wanted to express intricate symbolic ideas with the component shapes. (The somewhat oriental, vaulted church, for example, stands for the Old Testament and the Gothic hall for the New Testament, etc.) On the right-hand side of the panel Mary and Elizabeth meet in front of a bare, rocky, mountainous landscape. The background fills up the surface of the picture and adapts to the irregular lines of the frame, but, at the same time, it extends into depth too.
The painter has imposed a unity on the surroundings of the two scenes in a variety of ways. One of these is the decision to depict the angel in an open-air setting. He contrasts the brownish, grassy ground outside the group of buildings with the gorgeous flower garden (hortus conclusus) on the left-hand side of the picture, but in this way natural surroundings are integrated with the stone buildings. The two parts of the composition are also ingeniously connected, the smooth plateau of the mountain fitting into the ledges of the round edifice. The Virgin is the static figure on each side, while the Archangel Gabriel and Elizabeth, corresponding in their colours, approach her from opposite directions. The course of their movements is emphasized by the structure of the building with the obliquely placed hall, and by the semicircular line of the precipice in the foreground of the landscape.
But further devices, too, contribute to the unity of the composition: the clever use of the complicated form of the frame. Just as the golden ray, which originates from the mouth of God the Father and runs to the Virgin of the Annunciation, the slanting line of the frame leads to the Virgin of the Visitation. (If, in our imagination, we lengthen the divine beam of light upwards, it runs to the peak of the frame.) The upper right and bottom left corners are united by another diagonal line: the imaginary one that connects Gabriel, the Virgin and the angel, and there are additional echoes in the colours of the apparel of all the figures.