THE CHRISTMAS CANVAS: ‘The Annunciation’ by Henry Ossawa Tanner

THE CHRISTMAS CANVAS: ‘The Annunciation’ by Henry Ossawa Tanner

 CHRISTMAS! Up goes the twinkling tree and on go the glistening lights. It’s the season for gifts and candy canes; for fruit cakes and carols. But beyond the bows and mistletoes in a tiny manger lies the true magic of Christmas; of a Saviour born as man!

This magic of Christmas has for long enchanted artist who have employed their flair and brush to narrate a timeless story from the Annunciation to the Presentation.  This Christmas we bring to you the Christmas story through 12 brilliant masterpieces.

It all began in a little town of Galilee named Nazareth. ‘In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a Virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph. The virgin’s name was Mary.’ (Luke 1:26 – 27) In medieval imagination Mary is projected as a pristine and terrified virgin, interrupted at her psalter and enclosed in an ostentatiously decorated room or a garden of an Italian villa. 

In today’s painting, Henry Ossawa Tanner teases this subject in an unconventional manner. He reckons the simplicity of the scene rather than its theatrical recreation. In the intimacy of a chamber Mary is portrayed as a dark haired Jewish peasant girl seated at the edge of her couch in a striped crumpled attire. The orderly arrangement of the room in contrast to her bed confesses that Mary has suddenly been awakened in the night.  

The blinding form of the angel is the only source of light in the room. As this infused flood of golden light falls onto Mary’s face it allures us to where fear begins to give way to contemplation and contemplation to acceptance. It arrests our attention and ignites our imagination.

The Virgin wears no halo or celestial attribute. Her hands humbly clasped, her head tilted upwards and her eyes focused. She is clearly receptive and open to God’s will. Domesticity is now no stranger to epiphany. Peeking below her cascading drapery is Mary’s bare foot. This is an unusual Marian symbol. But for Tanner it signified the humanity and simplicity of the Blessed Virgin.

Tanner employs a variety of other visual mediums in the painting to emphasize upon the transformation of reality. Across Mary’s room are strewn three undecorated clay vessels. They acknowledge the presence and providence of the Trinity. The vessel also serves as a reminder of the Virgin herself who partook in the mystery of the Trinity as a ‘vessel of honour’ to bring into the world the Saviour of mankind.

The next feature is equally intriguing. Having no physical appearance or angelic wings, Gabriel is depicted as a pillar of light. However at a closer glance one observes that this vertical beam intersects with the horizontal shelf to form a cross. It thus foreshadows the crucifixion and proclaims the incarnation. The colours of the composition further embellish the liturgical and artistic beauty of the painting. While red symbolizes love, white signifies purity, blue stands for wisdom and gold is reminiscent for divinity.

Art often mirrors the life and imitates the artist’s experience. The paintings of Henry Ossawa Tanner in the same frame serve as vignettes of his life. Tanner (1859 – 1937) was the first African American painter to gain international acclaim. However he had to face discrimination as racism was then an anomaly. Due to these barriers he found solace, reassurance and acceptance in religion. Thus race and religion consumed Tanner and exuded onto his canvas. A canvas that preached the story of Christmas as never before and instilled a unity of the Divine and the human; of the unseen and seen, of mystery and reality!

 We welcome your comments

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, Goregaon, Mumbai
The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557

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