The Woman Said Yes

In the ticking midnight of this pandemic, Henry O. Tanner’s painting The Annunciation shows us a woman we can all relate to because we’re part of the urgent conversation.

Paula Sue Bryant
Jul 14, 2020 · 2 min read
Henry O. Tanner, “The Annunciation” (1898)| Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Renowned painter Henry O. Tanner, son of a former slave and a pastor, transcended genre. From warm and realistic scenes of work and home life, to brooding and impressionistic visions of Biblical mysteries, he painted the shattering, individual moment rather than the predictable, static stereotype.

The Miraculous in the Everyday

In one of his best known paintings, The Annunciation (1898), a young woman who could be a sister, a daughter, sits on the edge of her bed. She stares with a mix of wonder, fear, and defiance at a blazing column of light, an intruding angel demanding action.

In the Ticking Midnight, We’re at a Crossroads

Tanner’s Mary is every woman, barefoot in her robe, steeled for bad news while longing for good tidings. Tanner’s warm yellows, reds and browns show us the heat of the moment. She’s listening, and her decision will lead us forward.

We feel the doubt. We understand the urgency. We hold our collective breath, wondering what she’ll do. The future hangs on her response. We’ve stumbled on a conversation of the utmost import. Tanner has made us participants.

The Miraculous Is Earthly, Homely

Professor of religious studies and author Marcus Bruce* notes Tanner’s skill at connecting the sacred to the everyday. Instead of dramatizing the strangeness of the miraculous, Tanner makes it earthly, homely, an electric lamp that wakes us up and lights the way to new revelations.

It’s easy to believe in Tanner’s Mary, our lady of the bare feet and the rumpled bed, who knots her fingers and waits, her face lit by the fire of an unthinkable inspiration that comes by night. It’s easy to believe in her because she reminds us of ourselves.

What on Earth Is Going On?

*[Marcus Bruce, “A New Testament: Henry Ossawa Tanner, Religious Discourse, and the ‘Lessons’ of Art,” in Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit, edited by Anna O. Marley, University of California Press, 2012.]

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