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In Depth

Sonia Brozak '17 studies Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation

Science, Society and the Arts

Science, Society, and the Arts is a multi-disciplinary conference involving Washington and Lee undergraduates and law students in the presentation of their academic achievements before an audience of their peers and the faculty. Conference participants share their work via oral presentations, traditional academic conference-style panels, poster sessions, artistic shows, or creative performances.

In the weeks leading up to the conference on March 12-13, we will profile a few of the projects being presented by students.

Briefly describe your research project.

In a research paper, I examine the notion that Leonardo da Vinci pioneered a new form of annunciation scene that influenced artists who followed. A popular biblical topic for artists throughout the ages, the annunciation invokes a rich artistic tradition, one that has been imagined and re-imagined for centuries. Through examining Leonardo's Annunciation, analyzing other annunciations, and reading biblical and scholarly texts of the late 15th century, I argue that the piece reshaped the annunciation through its delineation of the canvas.

What about this project called you to exploration?

Nearly every painter from Middle Ages and Renaissance Europe has created an annunciation, so the ability to see the same elements imagined differently again and again compels me. But really, Professor Bent's spring term course on Leonardo da Vinci drew me to Leonardo's Annunciation and to Michelangelo's painting, Doni Tondo.

What was the most interesting thing you learned while working in this subject matter?

In my research, I spent a lot of time trying to identify the types of trees featured in the middleground of the painting. I tentatively found that they are, most likely, cypress, cedar and pine. Now, that sounded arbitrary, until I re-read Jacob de Voragine's Golden Legend, which is the foremost biblical commentary from the 13th century, and found that it asserts that the cross on which Jesus was most likely crucified consisted of cedar, cypress and pine.

What was the biggest challenge in completing this project?

While we picture Leonardo da Vinci as a huge historical figure, there remain only very few works convincingly identified as his. And while he created an extraordinary number of sketches and notebooks, he never made notes about his thoughts or feelings, so I still have trouble picturing Leonardo as a person rather than an historical figure.

What insight(s) did you gain from creating this project?

Not only have I learned a great deal about the annunciation tradition and Leonardo da Vinci's life, but the process of writing a paper like this one has been hugely informative. I have had to adapt it from something read into something spoken and that shift made a difference in the structure of my argument that I had not anticipated.

What was your favorite part of creating this project?

Looking at biblical art has always been very rewarding to me, not for any religious reasons, but mostly because of the consistent iconography. In looking at quite a bit of Italian art from the early Renaissance, there stands a fixed visual vocabulary and deciphering each piece of that feels like reading a painting.

Why would this project interest someone outside of your field?

Leonardo da Vinci's works encompass an awe-worthy understanding of many fields. Leonardo was one of the first artists of the early Renaissance to understand human anatomy, done through medical experimentation. Moreover, his art reflects the politics of fifteenth-century Florence and the biblical understandings developed over the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Leonardo has become a cultural icon through his later paintings, so studying early work gives insight to we value as a society.

In your mind, what is the value of considering science, society and the arts in the same context?

I find that students often label themselves as a "science" person or an "arts" person, causing us to forgo the possibility of their collaboration and intersection. Perhaps no one person I have learned about yet has epitomized the conjunction of those three topics quite like Leonardo da Vinci. In studying his art, I am compelled to learn about the chemistry of his materials, the cultural values held by the 15th century Florentine art community, and his understanding of landscape sketching. By saying Leonardo functioned only as an artist, our understanding of who he was and his impact on our culture loses value.

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Washington and Lee fosters an atmosphere of self-discovery and an environment where anything is possible. From research theses to fully student-led theater productions, the University makes it easy for students to follow their dreams. Every year, students present research proposals to faculty and pursue hypotheses in both the sciences and the arts. Student research can occur both on campus and off, with research grants specifically designated for both areas.

With an average class size of 16, it's easy to find faculty advisors for both major projects and new clubs. Many students propose self-guided majors or pursue a double-or even triple-major, given the inclusive nature of a liberal arts education. This provides students with the opportunity to discover their passions, and also with the support to pursue them.

The University's four-week Spring Term is designed to be transformative. The courses offered during the term are set up with the dream-class concept in mind, remarkable examples of creative and expansive teaching: studying painting in Italy; the Freedom Rides throughout the South; the physics of music; code-breaking in mathematics and history; aerial dance; and many, many more. Rigorous internships and co-curricular programs like Mock Convention, the Venture Club and the Williams Investment Society immerse students in real-world learning situations that bring the concepts they've studied in the classroom to life.

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