Digitizing the Burke 'Annunciate Virgin' - A 14th-century Italian Painting

August 23, 2019
Benjamin L Albritton
Annunciate Virgin

... we found ourselves revisiting The Annunciate Virgin. Kathy's love of the piece was contagious, and we began to entertain the thought that maybe, just maybe, we would actually buy a wooden panel painting. -- T. Robert Burke

 Digital Philanthropy for Access and Research

When Bob and Kathy Burke placed their collection of Italian miniatures on deposit at Stanford Libraries in 2017, they began a collaboration focused on providing physical and digital access to a world-class set of materials to researchers and students. Through their collection site, users from around the world can access high resolution images of 41 miniatures, 2 completely digitized codices, and 2 panel paintings at any time, day or night. For the last two years, we have enjoyed engaging with the Burkes in building out their site, encouraging researchers and students to examine the physical objects (excluding the panel paintings) in the Field Reading Room in Green Library, and exhibiting the collection in a variety of settings.


Burke ExhibitThe Burke Collection home page


Adding the digital images of the Burke materials to the Stanford Digital Repository has allowed us to continue to grow our online medieval offerings with objects that, in many ways, are beyond the means of our budget for physical acquisitions. Digital philanthropy from collectors like the Burkes makes it possible to provide a rich image library for research and study, even when the physical objects are held in private collections. The map program at Stanford has benefited tremendously from this sort of contribution, and we have started to see growth of this kind of philanthropic activity from collectors of medieval objects over the two years during which we have been working with the Burkes.


Digitizing the Annunciate Virgin


Examining the Burke Painting

Wayne Vanderkuil examines the panel in the digitization lab, Green Library


This summer, we collaborated once again with the Burkes to digitize a fourteenth-century panel painting they acquired in 1999. The painting has been attributed to 14th-century Florentine artist Nardo di Cione and depicts Mary interrupted at her reading by the Angel of the Annunciation, leading to the generic title for this work The Annunciate Virgin. The panel was originally part of a larger altarpiece from which other panels survive, though that larger work was dismantled at some point in the past and this portion has been circulating on the international art market for over a century.

The gallery was one room plus a small loft, located on a narrow side street. The gallery was jammed with paintings, sculptures, furniture, and other decorative items spanning roughly the 1300s to the 1800s. One piece stood out: a panel painting of the Virgin, but I didn't focus on it since we were collecting manuscript paintings. -- T. Robert Burke

Any digitization effort is, by nature, a collaborative one and includes the content owners and curators, the photographers, the project coordinators, conservation staff, and other specialists. In this case, our "small team" included Deardra Fuzzell, Wayne Vanderkuil, Astrid Smith, Kristen St. John, and Meagan Trott, along with the Burkes and myself. After an initial assessment by the imaging team and colleagues in conservation, followed by the creation of custom boards to support the piece during the digitization process, the team began work in June during an incredibly hot Palo Alto week. When the weather cooled down, a second pass at higher resolution was done. In each digitization pass, photographer Wayne Vanderkuil captured different angles to emphasize the reflection of the gold. The numerous image tiles were then composited and stitched together to provide the complete views we see online.


Delivering the Painting Online

The result, which we can now share at a permanent citation page, as well as in the context of the Burke online collection, provides four separate views of the painting (all of the non-stitched files are preserved in the Stanford Digital Repository, as well). These include front and back images at 600ppi, an 869ppi image of the front, and an 869ppi view of the front using a high pass filter.


Three views of the Annunciate Virgin

Three views of the panel, shown side by side in the Mirador viewer 


The use of the high pass filter, as shown below, emphasizes the craquelure and texture of the object at this point in time, providing an invaluable snapshot of the condition of the piece for conservation and preservation purposes. It also helps to deliver a sense of the "landscape" of the painting which can be used to develop an artificial 3D-like rendering of the painting surface using external software tools.


Image and Texture Comparison

Comparison of filtered image highlighting surface texture 


We chose to include an image of the back of the panel as part of the digital object that is delivered to users for several reasons. While it's true that the major action is happening on the front, details on the back of the panel can provide extremely helpful information. In the image below we see multiple stickers and fragments of labels that can help develop a picture of the provenance of this painting in the centuries before the Burkes became its custodian. Importantly, the back is also painted in a faux-marbling. This detail has allowed researchers to associate the Burke painting with panels held at the Yale Art Museum and helped to suggest the original context for the work (this is a longer story, and more details will hopefully follow).


Back of Panel

Back of panel, showing provenance information

As with all images delivered from the Stanford Digital Repository, this object can be used in other viewing software using IIIF. The manifest for this painting is: https://purl.stanford.edu/tz843jg3979/iiif/manifest . Using this protocol makes is easy to compare this new panel painting with other depictions of the Annunciation in the Burke collection (shown below) and in collections around the world.

Three Burke Annunciations


Many thanks to the entire team here at the library who participated in this project, and especially to Bob and Kathy Burke for their generosity and willingness to share the digital images of this beautiful work of art.


Equipment Used:

  • the images were captured using a copy stand with a Phase One P65
  • custom boards to support the panel during digitization fabricated by the Stanford Libraries Conservation Lab




If you have medieval materials and are interested in participating in our Digital Philanthropy Program which grants Stanford the opportunity to scan your physical objects, return the originals to you, and deposit a digital surrogate into the Libraries' online catalog, please contact Benjamin Albritton: blalbrit at stanford.edu.

To read more about the important role Digital Philanthropy plays in the development of our collections, please see this article by Julie Sweetkind-Singer, head of the Branner Earth Sciences Library and Map Collections