The angel and the girl are met.
Earth was the only meeting place.
For the embodied never yet
Travelled beyond the shore of space.
The eternal spirits in freedom go.
See, they have come together, see,
While the destroying minutes flow,
Each reflects the other’s face
Till heaven in hers and earth in his
Shine steady there. He’s come to her
From far beyond the farthest star,
Feathered through time. Immediacy
Of strangest strangeness is the bliss
That from their limbs all movement takes.
Yet the increasing rapture brings
So great a wonder that it makes
Each feather tremble on his wings.
Outside the window footsteps fall
Into the ordinary day
And with the sun along the wall
Pursue their unreturning way.
Sound’s perpetual roundabout
Rolls its numbered octaves out
And hoarsely grinds its battered tune.
But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak nor movement make,
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their gaze would never break
The Annunciation by Edwin Muir
Very few biblical subjects surpass the Annunciation in popularity as a work of art. Here we find God breaking through our darkness to join us in humanity. Here we find the essence of faith, as a simple girl accepts the inexplicable on the basis of God’s word alone. Here Henry Ossawa Tanner distinguished himself by expressing on canvas the brilliance of the Divine in intersection with His creation in a way that maximizes each without compromising the other.
Commenting on his work, Tanner said
I have no doubt an inheritance of religious feeling, and for this I am glad, but I have also a decided and I hope an intelligent religious faith not due to inheritance but to my own convictions. I believe my religion. I have chosen the character of my art because it conveys my message and tells what I want to tell my own generation and leave to the future.
In his book 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know, Terry Glaspey elaborates on the work:
No matter what the artistic medium, it is always a challenge to portray a moment when the supernatural breaks into our world and make such a moment believable rather than kitschy or sentimental. Throughout art history, the annunciation—that instant when the angel appeared to the Virgin Mary to tell her that she would be the mother of the Messiah—has been a popular theme in religious painting. Many of these paintings are beautiful, but also tend to be stiff and reverential rather than alive and convincing. Others are cloyingly sweet, flowing over with schmaltzy religiosity, and are not very believable in human terms. But Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Annunciation manages to be both lovely and emotionally resonant and at the same time feel utterly convincing.
Mary is portrayed as a young Jewish peasant sitting on the edge of her bed amid crumpled bedclothes, wearing a striped costume that would have been common for a young woman of the poorer class. She has no halo, nor is there anything immediately recognizable as special about her. She is not, as is often the case, surrounded by symbols of her purity. Nor is there anything grandiose about the simple setting. The angel who has appeared to her is not the conventional celestial-winged messenger of religious art, but rather a burst of overpowering golden light that permeates the room with its warm glow. Mary seems a bit frightened, as any ordinary person might be if she had just been addressed by an angelic being.
By the sheer ordinariness of this depiction of the intersection between the divine and human, we are reminded that God communicates to perfectly ordinary human beings in perfectly ordinary circumstances. And the holiness that infuses the picture is less in the flood of golden light and more in the look on Mary’s face, captured in the moment when fear is beginning to give way to contemplation and then acceptance. Her hands are folded in her lap, her head tilted upward, and her eyes focused. There is receptivity in her body language, an openness to God’s will.
Because the angel is presented in such an abstract form, all the focus of the painting is upon Mary. She is a reflection of the light, and it is through her posture and attitude that we experience the calm, the peace, and the holiness that fills the room. She is our clue to how we are to read this moment of revelation. As in many of Tanner’s paintings, it is through his focus on the figure who is receiving the light of revelation that we begin to understand something supernatural is taking place before our eyes.
How do you envision the Annunciation?
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
D I G D E E P E R
Henry Ossawa Tanner
(born June 21, 1859, Pittsburgh, Pa., U.S.—died May 25, 1937, Paris, France) American painter who gained international acclaim for his depiction of landscapes and biblical themes.
After a childhood spent largely in Philadelphia, Tanner began an art career in earnest in 1876, painting harbour scenes, landscapes, and animals from the Philadelphia Zoo. In 1880 Tanner began two years of formal study under Thomas Eakins at Philadelphia’s prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), where he was the only African American. In 1888 he moved to Atlanta to open a photography studio, but the venture failed. With the help of Joseph C. Hartzell, a bishop from Cincinnati, Ohio, Tanner secured a teaching position at Clark University in Atlanta. In 1890 Hartzell arranged an exhibition of Tanner’s works in Cincinnati and, when no paintings sold, Hartzell purchased the entire collection himself.
Through these earnings, Tanner traveled to Paris in 1891 to enroll at the Académie Julian. During this period he lightened his palette, favouring blues and blue-greens, and began to manipulate light and shadow for a dramatic and inspirational effect. He returned to the United States in 1893, in part to deliver a paper on African Americans and art at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. By 1894 his paintings were being exhibited at the annual Paris Salon, at which in 1896 he was awarded an honourable mention for Daniel in the Lions’ Den (1895; this version lost). The Raising of Lazarus (c. 1897), also biblical in theme, won a medal at the Paris Salon of 1897, a rare achievement for an American artist. Later that year the French government purchased the painting.
After touring the Holy Land in 1897–98, Tanner painted Nicodemus Visiting Jesus (c. 1898), which in 1900 won the PAFA’s Lippincott Prize. That same year he received a medal at the Universal Exposition in Paris. He remained an expatriate in France, routinely exhibiting in Paris as well as the United States, and winning several awards. Among his other works are The Annunciation (1898), Abraham’s Oak (1905), and The Two Disciples at the Tomb (c. 1905). During World War I he served with the American Red Cross in France. In 1923 the French government made Tanner a chevalier of the Legion of Honour, and in 1927 he became the first African American to be granted full membership in the National Academy of Design in New York.
After his death, Tanner’s artistic stature declined until 1969, when the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., exhibited several of his works. This was the first major solo exhibition of a black artist in the United States. In 1991 the Philadelphia Museum of Art mounted a touring retrospective of his works.
Preacher with a Paintbrush
In 1973, after more than a dozen years of turning down invitations to preach in racially segregated South Africa, Billy Graham finally held the first large-scale, mixed-race public event in the nation’s history. “Jesus was not a white man,” he declared to the 45,000 gathered in Durban. “He came from that part of the world that touches Africa, and Asia, and Europe, and he probably had brown skin.”
A lot of people still have trouble imagining a brown Jesus. In December 2013, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly riled media pundits by insisting that Jesus was white. The 2014 movie Son of God featured a decidedly white actor in the role of Jesus. In Exodus: Gods and Kings, director Ridley Scott used white actors to play key Egyptians and Hebrews; he claimed he couldn’t have financed the film had the principal characters looked too Middle Eastern.
The kerfuffle over Exodus got me thinking about the biblical paintings by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937). Tanner was the first African American painter to receive international acclaim and a pioneer in using Middle Eastern models for biblical figures. Tanner came from an illustrious family. His father was a leading bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and editor of the church’s paper, the most widely circulated African American publication at the time. Henry’s sister was the first woman (black or white) to practice medicine in Alabama, and Henry studied at both the prestigious Philadelphia Academy of Art and the Académie Julian in Paris. Many of his paintings were exhibited at the Paris Salon.
Though Tanner sometimes painted a dark (though not African) Jesus—and though he settled in France to escape American racism—he was not on a race mission. His mission was to universalize the biblical message: “My efforts have been to not only put the biblical incident in the original setting … but at the same time give the human touch ‘which makes the whole world kin’ and which ever remains the same.” Believing that Bible stories illuminate the universal human experience and offer an encounter with the living God, Tanner wanted to put us, the viewers, in the frame, for those stories are addressed to us and are about us.
The Annunciation, perhaps his most reproduced painting, does this remarkably well. His is not the standard double profile of an enormous angel with parrot wings confronting a pious Mary sitting in the garden of an Italian villa (think Fra Angelico). Instead, Tanner’s angel is a featureless, brilliant burst of light. Mary, on the other hand, sits in an unadorned bedroom in the middle of the night. The viewer’s eye is thus directed to the wonderstruck young woman. Because Mary is turned toward us, we share her reaction, listening with her for the divine Word as she receives the angel’s message and the Spirit’s overshadowing.
Tanner’s first painting of Jesus and Nicodemus is a similar contrast to standard practice. When James Tissot, the most popular illustrator of biblical scenes in the 1890s, painted The Interview between Jesus and Nicodemus, he gave us a profile of the two seated men, heads bent together intimately. But Tanner’s dark-faced Jesus faces us squarely. Tanner makes us, alongside Nicodemus, spiritual seekers.
In The Resurrection of Lazarus, Tanner again departs from the standard portrayal. When Jesus commands “Lazarus, come forth!” both Rembrandt and Tissot isolate him visually from the mourners. Tanner’s Christ, by contrast, stands with the mourners (among them a turbaned man of distinctly African appearance), not pointing upward but reaching out toward the awakening Lazarus, spreading his palms in a gesture of welcome. By standing with the mourners—we are all mourners—Tanner’s Jesus includes us in the story.
Similarly, The Two Disciples at the Tomb has none of the usual props—no angel, no folded grave clothes. Tanner shows us instead the faces of Peter and John, illuminated by a light from the tomb. Reflecting both their grief and their budding resurrection faith, their faces could be ours.
The son of a preacher man, Tanner used images, not words, to extend an invitation. “I will preach with my brush,” he said. He did so by putting us in the picture, allowing us to share Mary’s wonder, Nicodemus’s searching questions, the sorrow of Lazarus’s friends, and the disciples’ newborn faith.
May we have the eyes to see Tanner’s message.
Sources and Resources
David Neff, “Preacher with a Paintbrush,” Christianity Today (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today International, 2015), 30.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago, IL: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2016).
Bruce, Marcus. Henry Ossawa Tanner: A Spiritual Biography. New York: Crossroad, 2002.
Marley, Anna O., ed. Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 2012.
Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).