Annunciation Told Like an Origin Story : Notes on Henry Ossawa Tanner

Travel in the Middle East helped shape a painter’s wonderful retelling of a Biblical story

There is incredible boldness in the simplicity of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s 1898 painting, “The Annunciation.”

Tanner, “The Annunciation,” 1898. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Purchased with the W. P. Wilstach Fund, 1899.

Tanner’s painting breaks with European tradition for depicting the story of the meeting of Mary and the angel Gabriel. This encounter is commonly known as the annunciation. As told in the Bible by Luke, the angel appears to Mary and tells her she will be the mother of Jesus.

Annunciation scenes long were used to display the wealth of a society and the skill of the artist. Mary tends to appear in sumptuous surroundings. She often has little expression on her face, as seen in the painting below by Fra Angelico.

Annunciation by Fra Angelico, C. 1437–46 Museum of San Marco, Florence. Wikipedia image in public domain.

The painting below, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, seems more a showcase for the artist’s technique with the then-emerging use of perspective than demonstration of religious art.

Annunciation scene attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1472–1475. Uffizi, Florence. Wikipedia image in public domain.

Like many people, I adore the painting seen below, done by Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441). But we love this work for van Eyck’s mastery of details, not for the story told.

Jan van Eyck, The Annunciation, c. 1434/1436, , Andrew W. Mellon Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

With this painting, the eye is drawn strongly to Gabriel’s robe. How could van Eyck with paint alone give us this impression of this rich brocade cloak decorated with gems? You can almost feel the weight of this cloak. And look at the individual scenes van Eyck paints in the rug. Impressive.

In this painting, Mary seems more like a prop than a person. She is swamped in her voluminous blue robe. In this van Eyck painting and most other depictions of the annunciation, Mary wears the blue mantle that artists have taught use to associate with the mother of Jesus.

This approach frankly is like introducing a new superhero already wearing a cape.

Tanner’s painting of the annunciation is more akin to one of those great “origin story” movies we’ve seen lately.

His painting is about the moment of young woman from a humble background is called to an amazing destiny.

Think about what’s happening here. In the New Testament, Luke writes of an angel named Gabriel appearing in Galilee to speak with Mary, who already is engaged to a man. Gabriel tells her “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” As Luke tells the story, Mary was “greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.”

Um.. “greatly troubled”..that sounds about right. Look at Mary’s face in Tanner’s painting. There are questions in those eyes. That’s a human reaction to this strange appearance.

As Luke describes the scene, Gabriel then tells Mary not to be afraid and that she will become the mother of the son of God. Mary asks a question wondering how this could be as she is a virgen. In Luke’s version, Mary quickly accepts Luke’s explanation. “ `I am the Lord’s servant’,” Mary answered. “ ‘May your word to me be fulfilled’,” Luke writes.

To me, it seems earlier artists show Mary as docile. They paint Madonnas. The women are not shown thinking deeply about what is being asked of them.

Not so with Tanner’s Mary.

Look at how her hands are clasped. Her eyes radiate intelligence. I’ve worked for many years as a journalist. Mary’s expression in this painting is one I see on the faces of dogged reporters at many press conferences, as they weigh the words they’re hearing.

To me, Tanner’s “The Annunciation” also shows what travel can do for artists.

One of Tanner’s patrons, Rodman Wanamaker of the department-store dynasty, funded a trip for the artist to the Middle East. I think we see what Tanner saw in his time in Palestine. He brought back details that set his paintings of religious themes apart. His Mary has simple clay pots in her room. There are not fancy decorations as seen in the works of the Italian painters.

And the textiles in Tanner’s painting are also simple, attractive, but simple. You get the sense of Mary’s robe being made of rougher cloth than the silks in which European artists display their Madonnas.

Tanner does give us Mary’s bluish robe, but it rests on the right side of the painting. Mary does not yet wear it. We are seeing her in the moment of transition. She has not yet accepted her destiny and taken up her mantle.

I’ve been a little obsessed with “The Annunciation” since studying it to write a longer essay on the life and work of Tanner. This Medium essay focusing on “The Annunciation” functions as what journalists call a sidebar to my longer one.

Journalist fascinated by art, food, architecture, justice, politics, history and business. Has visited museums on six continents, eaten in more than 60 nations.

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