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Student collaborates with professor to research "Annunciation"

Molly Davy '12 presents her findings on a lithograph of the "Annunciation" on Oct. 17, 2011.
Molly Davy '12 presents her findings on a lithograph of the "Annunciation" on Oct. 17, 2011.
Photo by Melissa Kaelin.

When Assistant Professor Amy Hamlin, Ph.D., and art history major Molly Davy ’12 stepped onto St. Kate’s campus in 2008, they had no idea what a transformative experience lay ahead. Both in their first year at St. Kate’s, the two women began to build a relationship that would inspire them toward personal and professional growth. 

Over the last three and a half years, Hamlin and Davy have interacted with each other through courses, museum tours and one particular art history research project. With Hamlin’s guidance, Davy was tasked with conducting research into an early 19th century lithograph owned by St. Kate’s — a depiction of the “Annunciation” painted by “The Master of the Life of the Virgin.” The lithograph, which uses natural dyes mixed with organic materials to depict the painting dating back to the 15th century, hangs in Derham Hall.

The project on the “Annunciation” held special significance for both Hamlin and Davy. For Hamlin, the original artwork — which resides in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany — was a painting she often visited to recharge while she was doing her dissertation research in 2004. For Davy, it informed her coursework as well as giving her access to art that exists on her own college campus.

Research into a masterpiece

Through her research, Davy found that the painting was likely rendered in tempera paint on an oak panel. It was originally part of a polyptych, which is a painting that is divided into multiple panels, and it served as part of a predella, or a series of paintings located at the base of an altarpiece.

annunciationlithThe painting was created by The Master of the Life of the Virgin, which art historians agree is likely a pseudonym for a German artist named Johann van Duyren in the fifteenth century.

“The image depicts the Annunciation of Mary,” says Davy. “According to Luke 1:26-38, the archangel Gabriel came to the Virgin Mary and announced to her that she would become the mother of Jesus Christ, Son of God. The Annunciation is celebrated in the Catholic Church on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25th, nine months before Christmas.” (Above, a photo of the "Annunciation" lithograph that hangs in Derham Hall at St. Kate's.)

Through her research, Davy found that the lithograph was rendered in the early 19th century by Johann Neopuk Stixner, who was the first to reproduce the work of The Master of the Life of the Virgin. By creating lithographs of the painting, Stixner “made works accessible to people all over the world at a time when the only way one could see work from other countries was through reproduction or visiting the original in its home country.”

Davy went on to explain that the artwork is rich in symbolism and iconography, especially as the original painting from the Renaissance was intended for an illiterate audience. These viewers, who would have seen the painting on the altar of their local church, could glean meaning from the symbols as a way to understand the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Davy pointed out more than a dozen visual representations of religious concepts in the image — such as three figures in the image that together represent the Holy Trinity; the Book of Wisdom, that carries different meanings depending on whether it is open or closed; and the quatrefoil on Gabriel’s robe that represents each of the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Inspiration through art

After Davy began conducting her research, Hamlin developed a curriculum around the artwork, incorporating Davy’s research of the “Annunciation” into her lessons. The collaboration led to a strong professional relationship between the professor and her undergraduate student, and an experience that inspired both women in a meaningful way.

For Davy, her professor’s leadership inspired her on a level that she hopes to duplicate in the classroom after she launches her own career.

“I can truly say that my life has changed as a result of having her in my life,” says Davy. “This is directly reflected in my increased confidence, eagerness for a challenge, and high academic expectations for myself. Her passion for teaching and learning and her willingness to help the advancement of her students in any way inspires me to imagine endless possibilities for my future. Amy is a great role model and I hope to inspire a student in the same way when I teach someday.”

“We’ve grown up together at St. Kate’s,” says Hamlin. “I’ve taught her quite a bit, and she’s taught me quite a lot about art history, in the process of making that discipline her own as something she wants to pursue in her life and career.”

Through the project Hamlin says she also developed as a professor, learning to communicate her knowledge and experience through guidance in addition to dictation. Davy’s research also renewed Hamlin’s love for the “Annunciation.”

“Molly's perspective on this work of art has encouraged me to see it differently, to see it with fresh eyes, as an expression of faith in the power of art,” says Hamlin.

Dec. 8, 2011 by Melissa Kaelin

See also: Arts, Catholic Identity, Faculty, Students