Today’s Advent offering comes from another of my favourite artists, Henry Ossawa Tanner. One of the things I love about his art is his incredible use of colour to portray the mood and atmosphere of a scene. Just look at the painting below, which depicts the tradition of Jesus walking on water (Matthew 14.22-33).
The figure of Jesus stands in the top left corner of the painting – Tanner has portrayed him with little detail, so that he looks rather like an amorphous blob, similar in colour to the surrounding sea on which he stands. The disciples stand uncertainly on the boat, looking towards Jesus – some seem to be cowering at the back of the boat, as far away as they can from this supernatural event, while one (perhaps Peter?) stands up as though to get a better view.
Compared to the biblical tradition, where a storm is raging, the water is as calm as glass here. Tanner has infused this image with a glorious turquoise wash that brings an air of complete calm to the scene – an attestation by the artist, perhaps, that Jesus can indeed calm any of life’s storms.
Contrast this, however, with the image below, which has appeared in our Advent calendar back in 2013. In The Annunciation, Tanner’s colour palette is a flush of hot oranges and reds – we can feel the heat emanating from the (rather vulval-looking) angelic presence and sense the immenseness of the event for a very young and apprehensive Mary, who has been cornered by this divine messenger.
Tanner shows us here how colour can affect our reading of a visual image – from cool waters to fiery angels, these paintings are designed to elicit in the beholder an emotional response, which reflects the interpretive intentions of the artist. The aqua tones in his depiction of Jesus calming the storm also soothes the viewer with promises of Christ’s power over chaos, while Mary’s unsettling encounter with the angel likewise unsettles us, making this annunciation event all the more awesome.