Reflections upon The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Published on 28 Apr 2016
A young woman sits on a bed with hands folded - the angel Gabriel appears as a column of light

Of all places, in Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales, I was introduced to a beautiful depiction of the Annunciation. It was there that I saw for the first time Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting The Annunciation, a striking rendition of the angel Gabriel’s appearance to a virgin named Mary.  I find it fascinating that Mary is not presented ostentatiously, and Gabriel is not shown in the traditional style of having a halo and glorious wings extending from his body (For a more traditional portrayal of the Annunciation, check out The Virgin of the Annunciation by Fra Giovanni da Fiesole.)  From my perspective, Tanner’s picture captures the moment when a young, ordinary woman in a shabby room encounters the sacred. Mary’s face expresses sheer awe, awe in the sense of both trepidation and wonder.  In a reasonable fashion, it seems, for anyone who has ever encountered God, bliss resonates within the soul.  From viewing this picture, I do believe that Mary experienced a series of emotions—trepidation, wonder, and bliss—when the Almighty revealed a message to her via Gabriel:  “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God.  You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:30-33, NIV)

It seems to me that the focal point of this picture is the right-hand side: Mary sitting on her bed with her hands clasped.  My eye was immediately drawn to her, and then the centre of interest took me further than what simply meets the eye.  I was intrigued by her facial expression, which captures awe.  After seeing her face, I was then drawn to where Mary is looking.  Mary sees a luminous figure in front of her. Her emotional response brilliantly illuminates for me the event that has come to pass: a young, poor woman receives the angel for what he is, without having preconceived notions like the following: How can a super-human being appear to me?  Instead, she asks the question: “How will this be since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34, NIV)  Only a woman of profound faith could ask such a question in light of the phenomena just presented to her from the divine.  She sought to make sense of a faith-inspired event; her inquiring was the attempt to bring her reason and faith together, a kind of rationale for believing in her vocation from the Lord. Although she is wonder-filled, Mary appears to be at ease, ready to say: “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38, NIV)

Though we might not receive a message from an angel, there are glimpses of the divine everywhere in life.  God is in all things, and we have to take each moment, every event as part of Divine Providence, and then respond accordingly.  For me, Mary is the exemplar in this respect; she took her encounter with Gabriel as it was, without preconceived notions.  Regarding observation, what mere sense data had shown here is that a virgin cannot conceive a son, more, the Son of God.  Mary placed observation alone to the side, and trusted the Lord.  The Lord is able to shatter our preconceptions and the smokescreens, which so often blind us from seeing reality clearly. God is at work in our lives. This shattering is exemplified when Gabriel exclaims: “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.  Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.” (Luke 1:35-37, NIV) At first glance, it seems that Mary would be dumbfounded to accept the angel’s words.  God surprised her.  Instead, Mary received a special revelation from the exterior, as it were, a God-send in the literal sense of the word in which human reason would find difficult to justify without the appearance of an angel. And what a wonderful revelation it was! Mary said yes to bringing the Son of God into the world.      

Each experience is God seeping into our reality; He constantly surprises us. Like Mary, each moment we are awakened from our slumber and called to respond gratuitously: let it be done to me according your word, O Lord.

V M Castaldi (Oringinally posted on Manresa Amigos, the Novitiate blog)

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