The Annunciation by Henry Tanner

Faith & Inspiration

Take your pick. Would you rather watch actors solve crime on C.S.I. or watch actual police bust bad guys on COPS? Scripted television or reality TV?

Recently I read of a local police detective who solved a 25-year-old homicide case. Contrast that with TV sleuths who get their man by the end of the show. Ah, the tension between reality (how things actually are) and idealism (how we want them to be).

The Annunciation, a painting by 19th century American artist Henry Tanner, provides an opportunity to explore this idealism/realism tension, even as we think on a Christmas theme.

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Trained under the monumentally important artist Thomas Eakins, Tanner's work displays all the characteristics of realism, an artistic style developed in part by French artist Gustave Courbet who made statements like "Painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist of real and existing things," and "I have never seen angels. Show me an angel and I will paint one." Courbet often scandalized the Parisian art world by his unembellished depiction of everyday people.

Tanner's painting comes with the descriptive title, making clear to us what we see. With a basic knowledge of New Testament gospel texts, we are to understand that the young woman on the bed is Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the scene depicts her communication with the angel Gabriel. Following Courbet's maxim, the angelic presence is implied but not depicted.

And the message? Though still a virgin, Mary would carry in her womb and give birth to the Son of God (Luke 1:26-38). Gabriel revealed Mary's status as theotokos, "God bearer." One of the most ancient promises of grace, given to Adam and Eve, was about to be fulfilled (Genesis 3:15).

For just a minute, take your basic understanding of history and play the imagination game with me. Imagine a young Jewish woman of very modest means, living 2,000 years ago in a small village within ancient Palestine.

Now look back at the painting. What do you see? Is Tanner's painting similar to how you imagined the scene should be? I suppose it depends on how you define the word "should."

This annunciation (announcement) scene is a common motif, painted again and again throughout the ages. Tanner's realist depiction, however, stands in stark contrast to the idealist versions produced by nearly every other great artist. That is to say, Tanner's realism is the exception rather than the norm.

When you look at the annunciation paintings of Botticelli, Fra Angelico (also here), or Philippe de Champaigne, you will readily see what I mean. Typically, artists clothe Mary in sumptuous and costly fabric and surround her with grand architecture. Not that they actually thought a first-century Jewish girl wore such clothes or lived among such buildings. Rather, historical realism was not the driving motivation. Because they painted the woman who would bear the Son of God, artists throughout the ages depict Mary with great dignity and honor---at least according to their own conception of those terms.

But Tanner clothes Mary in simple peasant fabric and places her in a room with rough-hewn stone flooring and ugly, cracked plaster. Even the vase in the background is of the common ceramic variety with no adornment. While other artists depict Gabriel coming to Mary while she is reading, thus showing her industry, intellect, and piety, Tanner's Mary seems to have been doing nothing---just sitting on her bed. Look closely and you will even see her bare toes. How shocking!

Take note how the simplicity of the scene conveys serenity, matching the humble submission to God's will expressed on Mary's face. Though no shining aureole hovers above this peasant girl's head, we cannot miss her special status as "the favored of God." Tanner used his own beloved wife as the model, and I would argue that this comes out in the painting as Tanner captures his own affections on the campus.

What about the angel? Mary gazes at something material within the light, but we only see the blazing yellow. Gabriel is either coming or going, or perhaps he stands in a doorway between the spiritual and material world---a doorway for Mary's vision but not ours. Courbet says, "No angels!" and Tanner listens to his teacher.

I am unwilling to accept the full worldview-implications of realism. Though it produced some magnificent works of art, the philosophical foundation of realism is not without problem or peril.

However, I must admit that I enjoy and embrace Tanner's Annunciation more than any other painting of this motif. My affection for the piece stems from my belief that Tanner "got it right" in terms of the real message of the annunciation and incarnation.


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