A Domestic Annunciation

To clear the palate from all things synodal, let us go look at a painting. One in particular deserves a place of honor. Among the loveliest images of Mary that we hold as our own, none delights me more than Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Annunciation.

Henry Ossawa Tanner. The Annunciation (1898). Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Henry Ossawa Tanner. The Annunciation (1898). Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Tanner (1859-1937) was this country’s first major African-American artist. Within nine years of moving to Paris—a crucial destination for artists of his generation—he had become an international success. By 1900, he ranked among the leading Americans in Paris and, released there from the burdens of race, was counted the premier biblical painter of his day. He exhibited regularly at the Paris Salon, attracting even greater critical acclaim than Thomas Eakins, his friend and former mentor at the Pennsylvania Academy.

The first of Tanner’s works purchased for an American museum, The Annunciation is a marvelous blend of academic realism and abstract invention. No winged angel appears, no benedictory gesture.

Francisco de Zubarán. The Annunciation (1650). Madrid.
Francisco de Zubarán. The Annunciation (1650). Madrid.

Feathered messengers are an ancient technology. Angels, as we are used to imagining them, are a pictorial device somehow off-kilter a mere five years before the airborne marvel of Kitty Hawk. This is Paris, 1898. Pigeon post—winged angels a variant of it—will not do today for depicting divine address to the daughter of Zion. The God-bearing word travels, as ever, at the speed of light. Tanner’s Gabriel arrives as an electromagnetic pulse, a shimmering Doppler effect that proclaims a wonder in heaven and another within the soul of a girl.

And the girl! Gone is the Lady of medieval imagining, interrupted at her psalter. Here is a dark-haired, adolescent peasant from the hills of Galilee, who never held a book. Teenaged Miriam, hands in her lap, looks into the light, weighing the message. She does not shrink back in awe, as in the Sienese version below. She makes no gesture of excessive humility. Her body language is attentive, poised. Composure in the face of the miraculous hints at something in the very nature of revelation. Gabriel’s extraordinary message bursts into the ordinary. Domesticity is no stranger to epiphany.

Simone Martini. The Annunciation (detail), 14th C., The Uffizi, Florence.
Simone Martini. The Annunciation (detail), 14th C., The Uffizi, Florence.

Notice that single, sturdy bare foot peeking out from a cascade of drapery. It is a small touch but one that marks Tanner’s intentional distance from centuries of Marian typology. The Virgin might have bared one breast to suckle her baby but she was rarely, if ever, depicted barefoot. As if she never really touched the floor. But those traditional images of Mary nursing had a doctrinal purpose: to affirm the humanity of Jesus. Here, Tanner emphasizes the humanity of Mary. No need, then, for the exaggerated modesty of a shod foot.

The scene’s exaggerated drapery, however, serves purely compositional purposes. Too lavish for the historical accuracy which was crucial to Tanner, its undulating spread provides pictorial counter to the spare geometry of an otherwise austere interior. Moreover, the technical demands of that pendant droop declare Tanner’s brotherhood with Bouguereau, Meissioner, Géròme, Cabanel, Bastien-Lepage, and other prize-winning stars of the Salon. Pride in craft makes a proclamation of its own.