Monday, March 26, 2012

Lady Day: Henry Ossawa Tanner's Annunciation.

March 25 is the traditional day to celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, though on this year's Episcopal Liturgical Calendar it has been "transferred" to Monday, March 26, because it would otherwise fall on a Sunday in Lent. The Feast commemorates the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to Mary, announcing that she will be the mother of Jesus (see Luke 1, 26-38). It is also called Lady Day (apologies to Billie Holiday fans, of which I'm one).

The painting above, The Annunciation (1898), is by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), the first internationally recognized African American painter. A native of Pittsburgh, Tanner studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where one of his instructors was Thomas Eakins. He later emigrated to Paris, and continued his studies there. In the 1890s his work became known to the French artistic establishment, and he had a painting accepted into the Salon in 1896.

The Annunciation (click on the image above to enlarge) is interesting for, among other things, its depictions of Gabriel and of Mary. Earlier paintings of the same subject were quite different. Consider this Annunciation (circa 1644) by Philippe de Champaigne:
In this painting, Gabriel is rendered, as angels were in medieval, renaissance, baroque, and neoclassical art, as an anthropomorphic figure with wings added. Mary is shown in full dress, arrayed as a well-to-do woman might be, in a red gown and blue cape. She has been studying a book, an anachronism, but presumably what she is reading is Isaiah 7, 10-14, anticipating the birth of Immanuel. While her hands register surprise, her facial expression is one of quiet ecstasy: note the slight smile and the keen eyes (for an enlarged image, see here.) She also has a subtle halo.

In Tanner's painting, by contrast, Gabriel is shown as a shimmering (the on-line image doesn't do the painting full justice) shaft of light. This may reflect a modern theological understanding of angels as disembodied entities. (I recall the late Roman Catholic Bishop--later an archbishop; now a Servant of God--Fulton J. Sheen, on his television show in the early 1960s, saying that an angel's theme song might be "I Ain't Got No Body." I wonder if he knew that the song's real title is "Just a Gigolo"?) Tanner's interest in religious matters--many of his works were on Biblical themes--may result from his father's having been a clergyman who became a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. More radical than his portrayal of Gabriel, in my view, is Tanner's depiction of Mary as a simple peasant woman in her bedclothes, with a facial expression not of joy, or of fear, but of acceptance with a hint of wistfulness (for an enlarged image, see here). There is no halo. Tanner, trained by Eakins in the realist tradition, leaves little doubt that this is a real woman.

I'll close this with Sting's live rendition (also see here), of the traditional song "Gabriel's Message", a studio version of which is included in his album If on a Winter's Night....

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