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David, the Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor

Gerard David, The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor, c. 1510, oil on oak, 105.80 x 144.40 cm (The National Gallery, London). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music playing) Beth: Look at that gold stitching on the red fabric and the ermine lining of the clothing worn by Saint Catherine. Steven: And on Saint Barbara, look at the jewels in her headdress. They're just spectacular. Beth: Look at the perfection of the white lilies in the garden between Mary and Saint Barbara. Steven: Well, between Katherine and Mary, look at the iris. It looks like it's got dew on it. Beth: Look at the transparency of the fabric that wraps around Christ's legs. Steven: Or how about the grape arbor in the background. Each leaf is carefully delineated. Beth: Look at the perfect foreshortening of Saint Catherine's right hand. Steven: Not to mention the foreshortening of the tiles on the floor and then, look at the way in which the folds are falling out of the gray garment on top of the fur worn by the patron. Beth: And what about the red fabric underneath Mary's feet and the way that her blue gown with the gold stitching at the edges falls over that. Steven: And then of course, there's the infinity of the city in back of the garden. Looks like there's a crane on the chimney of the house on the left. Perhaps, there's a woman in the window. The tiles of the roof are visible. Beth: There is so much to see in this painting. Steven: We're looking at Gerard David's The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor, which brings together not only the patron, the man who paid for the painting, a series of female saints, but Mary and the Christ child, as well as an angel and Saint Anthony Abbot, who can just barely be seen in the garden beyond. Beth: We know that the patron was a senior cleric for a church in Bruges, who was restoring a chapel dedicated to Saint Anthony Abbot and that this altar piece was probably made for that chapel. Steven: So this is that aspect of northern painting that I find so compelling. This deep sense of spirituality that's combined with this interesting and the precise rendering of the material world. Beth: Right. It's the way that the material world reveals the spiritual world. That's such a part of the Northern Renaissance. The care that David took with everything in this painting makes our eye want to linger, helping us to meditate on these figures. Steven: The more learned viewer would also recognize quite a number of symbols in this painting. For instance, on the extreme left-side we see an angel, who is clearly picking grapes from the arbor and that's a reference to the wine of the Eucharist and Christ's announcement of the last supper that that was His blood. Beth: And then we have Saint Catherine who is accompanied by her attributes, a wheel and a sword. Steven: We have the enclosed garden itself, which is a traditional symbol of Mary's virginity. Beth: We have the lilies and the irises. The lily is a symbol of Mary's virginity. The iris is a symbol of her faithfulness. Steven: Then on the right side, in the lap of Mary Magdalene, a jar of ointment, a reminder that she anointed the feet of Christ. But for all the solemnity, there's a little bit of activity as well. You see Christ in Mary's lap, but Christ is reaching over towards Catherine and he's handing her a ring and this is a reminder that she was martyred, according to legend, because she refused to marry the emperor of Rome, who she said she was already married to Christ. Beth: And we also see Mary Magdalene reaching out to a page of the Bible that is held by Saint Barbara. So there's little bits of activity and informality within this, otherwise, very solemn and serious image. (piano music playing)