Faith through Art: Painting portrays Mary’s courage, humility, youth

Henry Ossawa Tanner painted this unconventional piece of the Annunciation in 1898. (Photo in the public domain)

By Sandra Martin

The first thing one notices in Henry Ossawa Tanner’s remarkable 1898 painting, “Annunciation” is the absence of the traditional, winged angel, Gabriel. In Gabriel’s stead, we have a brilliant column of white and golden light. The second thing that catches the eye is the image of Mary –– this is the woman-child Mary before she became the Mary of the Renaissance, garbed in red and blue; Mary before she became Queen of Heaven; Mary before she donned a golden halo and a beatific expression.
Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) presents us with an Annunciation that is an unconventional representation of a very familiar New Testament story. A blend of modern realism and inspired spiritual imagination, Tanner’s work encourages us to see the miracle of the Incarnation in a new way. By casting the angel Gabriel as an abstract shaft of light, we are reminded that God’s first words of creation were ‘Let there be light’ (Gen 1:3). In Tanner’s painting, the Light awaits the consent of a young woman to become the vessel for the “Light of the world” (Jn 8:12).
While many if not most paintings of the Annunciation depict Mary as an adult, history tells us that at the time of the Annunciation, she was most likely around the age of 13. Tanner’s Mary seems to be within this range, and her expression reveals the innocence and powerlessness of a young woman who will become exalted among all others, exclaiming in the Magnificat, her beautiful song of praise, “...behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed” (Lk 1:48). Though initially Mary must surely have been surprised by the appearance of Gabriel, her face, as depicted by Tanner, does not reveal surprise, but rather a guileless rapt attention. 
In the composition of the painting, we see another divergence from earlier images of the Annunciation. We do not see Mary in the midst of a sumptuous and detailed architectural structure, but in a humble Middle Eastern dwelling. Rather than kneeling, seated in a chair, or standing at a lectern, Mary is shown in her bed among her rumpled bedclothes. We know not whether she was woken from sleep or is preparing to recline, as the light representing Gabriel obliterates all darkness from the room, and casts a strong shadow behind Mary, recalling the Scripture, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12). 
Tanner’s Mary also does not wear the customary voluminous blue and red garments, but a simple robe of natural color with blue stripes. In fact, almost in defiance of such art historical convention, the traditional colors of Mary’s vestments are deconstructed, that is, we see the red in the tapestry hanging behind her and around her bed, and the blue in the fabric draped to her right. Christian symbolism tells us that blue is often a reference to Heaven and the divine. The wide swath of red that surrounds Mary reflects Christ’s Passion and his death on the Cross –– of which she was a mournful witness –– and reminds us of that time in which Mary was called to bear the pain of the unimaginable.
Tanner’s Mary is the real thing, a young woman who wears no veil, and whose humanity is revealed in her tightly clasped hands, and in the bare toes peaking from beneath her bedcovers. She is a girl who is able to respond to God’s invitation with the words, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). God’s invitations are rarely extended to us via angels –– or shafts of light, for that matter. They come to us in conflict, in prayer, in silence, in reflection, and in moments of grace and connection. Tanner’s painting is one of grace and connection, “Hail Mary, full of grace.”
In the article “The Annunciation and You” in the Dec. 20, 2012, issue of America magazine, Father James Martin explains the immense appeal and fascination we have with the Annunciation, “Why is this brief passage from the Gospel of Luke the subject of more artistic renderings — paintings, sculptures, mosaics, frescos — than almost any other passage in the New Testament, save the Nativity and the Crucifixion? ... Perhaps because it depicts the dramatic entrance of the divine into our everyday world … and in doing so the story offers us something like a multi-faceted jewel: a microcosm of the spiritual life.”
Tanner’s “Annunciation” prompts the sacred questions: How do we respond to the entrance of the divine into our everyday world? Are we open to the Light? Are we paying attention to God’s call? How we answer these questions is the microcosm to which Father Martin refers. In Tanner’s Annunciation painting, we see a model for our response in Mary’s courage, humility and wide-eyed openness.