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.
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
Tanner’s paintings shout to us of the miraculous in the everyday. We enter into the conversation and lay ourselves open to conversion.
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
We can relate. In the ticking midnight of this pandemic, we too are at a crossroads. Woke, we rub our eyes and squint at a future that blinds us with anxiety, yet unites us in hope.
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?
Thanks to Henry O. Tanner’s finding the sacred in the ordinary, I feel a connection with him, with her, and with all of you. We’re all struggling to stay awake and figure out what on earth is going on. Somehow, among ourselves, we’ll transcend it.
*[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.]