Fleur unpacks Henry Ossawa Tanner's illuminating painting of the Annunciation.

Mary is not mentioned that often in the New Testament yet there is more art portraying her in numerous forms and styles than of any other women in the world.

Representations of Mary generally fall into two categories:
i) Narrative scenes in which she has a role – the Annunciation as we have here; the Nativity; at the Crucifixion of Jesus; or in scenes from other sources which include her weaving in the temple; as a child with her parents Joachim and Anne; among the disciples at Pentecost; her ‘Dormition’ or falling asleep before her ‘Assumption’ into heaven and her ‘Coronation’ as Queen of Heaven.
ii) Spiritual resources intended for worship and meditation – these include icons, sculptures, tapestries and feast days in her honour, rosaries and prayer collections celebrating her life and invoking her intercession, poetry, drama and hymns which helped create devotion to, and veneration of, the Virgin Mary.

Associated with the Cult of Mary, which flourished in the Middle Ages, was the recording of Marian Apparitions in numerous countries. Mary appeared to different people at various times throughout history and with different messages both for those individuals and for the world. Mary’s role expanded so that she embodied specific qualities and set ideals for the Catholic faith: she became the New Eve, Madonna, Protector, Virgin, Mediator and Queen. These facets of her image and life inspired thousands of architects and patrons to dedicate new churches, shrines, schools and colleges to her patronage. Many religious orders promoted her virtues in their name and charism. From East to West, the depiction of Mary as white, demure and passive, dominates Western theology even though she was Jewish, Middle Eastern, a true radical and proactive in her faith life.

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Annunciation described in Luke 1: 26-38 recounts Gabriel announcing to Mary that she will give birth to Jesus, the Son of God. In this painting of the Annunciation by the African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, we see a realistic interpretation of a young girl experiencing a visitation by the angel Gabriel. Painted in 1898 it rejects the standard European garden or chapel scene with Mary rigidly posed, book in hand and looking much older than a typical teenager from Palestine. Here we have very few clues that this is a religious painting. Mary sits in peasant clothing with no halo or other discernible holy attributes. Tanner wanted to achieve a degree of realism by enabling the viewer to imagine what it must have been like for Mary, so he spent six weeks in the Middle East researching his subject and found a girl of about the right age for his model.

Tanner was brought up in the African Methodist-Episcopal Church and this may have influenced the simplicity of this scene in contrast with more formulaic Catholic interpretations. What strikes us is how Gabriel is not a figure but a column of light. Light in the East is different from the West whether indoors or outside, and this light has more than one function: to represent the Archangel Gabriel as enlightening Mary with her new role; perhaps to evoke the invention and use of neon lighting at this time, and to indicate the experience of a spiritual transformation.

For a realist painter, creating a vision of something they themselves couldn’t directly observe was a problem. How could you paint an angel if you’ve never seen one? Tanner is provoking us to ask – what would the Annunciation have actually looked like? He combines his religious heritage with his artistic skills to imagine Mary at the precise moment Gabriel appeared to her. As a realist Tanner therefore, portrays Mary with dark hair and Middle Eastern skin tones, dressed in humble clothes in a rather shabby room. Her bed is not lavish or tidy; crumpled sheets and blankets against rough plain walls with cracked plaster, and a cobblestone floor clearly convey poverty not luxury. Mary has very few possessions – we notice a lamp and a jug but no shoes or other clothes. Tanner wants us to see Mary’s surprise, her bed isn’t made because she’s been woken in the night. The light emanates entirely from Gabriel and further acts to highlight Mary for our benefit. This is not a daytime visit but a divine encounter while wearing ‘pyjamas!’

Tanner’s Mary couldn’t be more different from those of Fra Angelico or Leonardo. Yet in this way, she is more accessible and immediately compelling to us. In all of Tanner’s religious paintings, he emphasized the humanity of his subjects. While Mary seems anxious in the presence of the angel, she appears curious rather than afraid. With her hands folded in her lap in prayer – one of the few traditional tropes, she gazes at the angel-light with composed
serenity. Hers is a focused listening capable of discerning the divine message in the midst of the ordinary.

Most artists portray angels with wings to illustrate their capacity to fly. By deploying the use of light rather than bird-like appendages, Tanner offers a new slant on how God communicates with us through spiritual energy. This light both enables us to find Mary in the dark and guides us through this grace-filled encounter as it is happening to Mary. We are drawn into become witnesses to this revelation rather than mere observers. Tanner then provides another prophetic element in this story by placing a shelf behind the pillar of light so that it intersects with Gabriel, forming a cross. In this way, the light points not just to Christ’s birth but to his death.

Notice too that there are three pots, one on the shelf, one at Gabriel’s ‘feet’ and one on the far right behind Mary which frame and locate her in a triadic space. Perhaps these three pots symbolise the Trinity and Mary’s future as the vessel that will bear the Christ-child. By challenging traditional Annunciation iconography, we celebrate the power of Mary’s gift in her time and in our own time, with renewed perspective and grace.

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. (Luke 1: 46-48)

Further Reading:

The Art of Mary: A Celebration in Icons by Sister Wendy Becket. Redemptorist Publications.

Hail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God by Scott Hahn. Image; Reprint edition.

The Book of Mary by Nicola Slee. SPCK Publishers.

Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints by Elizabeth Johnson. Continuum Publications.

Papal Document on Mary:
Redemptoris Mater: On the Blessed Virgin Mary in the life of the Pilgrim Church (