Henry Ossawa Tanner
(1859 – 1937)
I love the very human Mary of Tanner’s beautiful painting. The puzzled look on her face. The slight tilt of her head. The lack of a halo. Her rather drab peasant apparel. Her bare toes peeping out beneath her wrap. She is most definitely one of us, someone with whom we can identify quite readily as she seems almost to shrink into herself when she is addressed by angel light from beyond.
Mary’s humanness is further emphasized for me by all the horizontal lines in the painting. Her bed. The simple wall hanging with its horizontal rich-hued stripes. These stripes repeated in the earth-toned carpet beneath Mary’s feet. The bricks of the bare floor. Tanner’s Mary is not a woman inhabiting some ethereal sphere. She is very human. The dimensions of her life are very ordinary; they are horizontal. Mary lives on this everyday earth.
And something else. Mary’s surroundings are not very neat. Her bedclothes are mussed, her wrap rather carelessly thrown around her shoulders. The deep blue garment thrown over a chair at the right bottom of the picture is not something carefully ironed and folded—more like a dress that Mary took off the night before and tossed unthinking onto the nearest chair. Even her carpet lies on the floor with a big wrinkle, ready to trip her up if she misstepps in reaching for her dress.
This painting is so real. Life is messy. The horizontal dimension in which we live out our days is never very neat. Full of wrinkles, bare toes, and clothing in disarray. Full of disorder and the muddle of reality.
But the horizontal is not all there is to this piece. The vertical shines on the left-hand side of Tanner’s painting as the angel comes to announce to Mary that God is with her. A vertical transcendence intercepts the horizontal. Not a transcendence neatly painted with bright angel wings. Rather a transcendence that defies words or strokes of paint, that goes beyond all human effort to define, spell out, or categorize. Nevertheless so real. So powerfully present to Mary in the midst of her rather chaotic room. Present and shining with a brilliance that lights up the entire space and leaves Mary, and us, in awe and with a deep sense of the Mystery that is God, the Mystery that is God-with-us.
Tanner’s “Annunciation” invites us during these days of Advent to meditate on the dimensions of our lives. Invites us to humbly acknowledge and confess the untidiness of our lives as we live them out on the horizontal plane of earth. Invites us, as well, to let the eyes of our souls be opened to the marvels of the God who vertically bursts into our messy horizontal ordinariness with all the splendor of the eternal, opening us to fuller, richer, multi-dimensional lives. Lives brightened by the words of the angel to Mary and to us, “The Lord is with you.” Lives warmed by the Love that wrapped itself in swaddling cloths and lay in a manger for us and for our salvation.
Denise Levertov has a poem which says this all so beautifully. Here is her poem “On the Mystery of the Incarnation”:
It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,