Let it be with me according to your Word: Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Annunciation
Our eyes are immediately drawn to this picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary because of its simplicity and candor. This Annunciation is quite different from the sumptuous depictions by Renaissance masters.
Lady Mary is a poor Palestinian peasant, sitting upon a rumpled bed in a modest room with plaster walls and little furniture. The artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner, had just returned from a trip to Egypt and Palestine, and he reflects on what he saw there. The son of an African Methodist Episcopal bishop and a freed slave, Tanner knew Luke’s Gospel well, even as he adapted it to his own world perspective. The painting was accepted at the 1898 Paris Salon, and then exhibited in Philadelphia and Chicago, before being acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the first painting by an African American artist in the collection of a major US museum. You can see it there today.
The Virgin sits before a piercing vertical light, a vision of the Archangel Gabriel, God’s messenger. Gabriel is not depicted as a white man with wings, but as a blaze of light, the light of God, neither white nor black, male nor female, pure Spirit which freely illumines the entire picture, especially Mary’s face.
Mary, a mere teenager, allows her bare foot to stick out beneath her cloak, even in the presence of this divine visitor. She has no halo, no regal robes. She appears totally vulnerable and childlike: Luke’s Gospel says “perplexed.” But her hands remain clasped calmly in her lap, betraying no agitation or fright. She cocks her head in a sideways tilt so that she looks directly at the light without appearing to do so. Her face betrays surprise, maybe some fear, but also a genuine interest in what she sees, but does not yet understand.
From out of the light, Mary hears the Gabriel’s message: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God…you will conceive and bear a son…the son of the Most High.”
How does one respond to such a statement? “You are kidding, right?” “I must be dreaming.” “No, no, please, not me.” Mary responds almost clinically, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
This pillar of light, perhaps similar to the pillar of fire that guided the Hebrews out of the wilderness, (Exodus 13:21) guides her: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” The word overshadow draws our attention again to the liberation of the Exodus story, where God’s presence in the wilderness is recorded as overshadowing the Ark of the Covenant. (Exodus 40:35) Luke is speaking directly to the Israelites—this is the God of old, the God you worship, reaching out again to his people to bring salvation through Jesus Christ.
Mary is up for the task, responding, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Could she possibly have understood the life that awaited her? We do not know what she thought, but we do know what Tanner wanted the viewer to understand. Look carefully at how the pillar of light is bisected by the wall shelf behind, forming a cross—the cross of crucifixion. Tanner does not let the viewer forget the sacrifice that is to come.
Yet the light and the cross do not dominate the picture. Our focus remains on the very human Mary. As the story unfolds, she births and, perhaps more importantly, raises Jesus of Nazareth. Her “Yes” to the Holy Spirit becomes a model of the work that humanity is called to do in our still fractured world.
On the right of the picture, counter-balancing the pillar of light, is a blue mantle draped over a chest. It is the color of royalty, traditionally worn by Mary in Renaissance pictures. This mantle awaits Mary’s acceptance of God’s request. Yet, by casually leaving the mantle in open view, Tanner seems to be saying that it is available to all who choose to follow where the Spirit leads, anyone willing to accept God’s call. We all have a role to play, a job to do, in continuing God’s work in the world. Our calls may be different, but the mission is the same. The royal mantle may become ours. What shall we all pour forth from the reservoirs of souls through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit?