Following on from Stephen’s advent offering yesterday, I thought I would continue the annunciation theme with a painting by American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner. While the angelic annunciation to Mary in Luke 1.26-38 is a hugely popular subject in art through the centuries, Tanner’s depiction stands out in my mind for a number of reasons. First, rather than the standard figure of the angel we are used to seeing in annunciation paintings (typically equipped with wings and flowing robes as we saw last Monday), the heavenly messenger is instead represented by a stunning, tear-shaped lozenge of light that hovers to the left of the picture, casting an amber glow over the rest of the scene. Its presence is awe-inspiring, but also a little disquieting, as we are left unsure of what it actually is.
Equally disquieting is the figure of Mary, who sits, seemingly mesmerised by this strange visitor. Hands clasped and shoulders hunched, she looks pensive and afraid, her oversized robe accentuating how young and vulnerable she really is – we cannot help but feel anxious on her behalf. Similarly, the small details of the rumpled bedclothes and crinkled rug accentuate the very human location of this biblical tradition and invite us to see the events through Mary’s eyes – the magnitude and trauma of this uninvited visitation and the massive task being imposed upon her by the heavenly messenger. What is she thinking right at this moment? How does she feel about what lies ahead of her? The annunciation scene is usually spoken of and represented as the most sacred of moments, yet perhaps Tanner shows it to us here as something far more complex.