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TRUTH IN ART: The Annunciation

ST. LOUIS (BP)–Which is more exciting — watching professional actors solve crime on “C.S.I.” or watching actual police bust bad guys on “COPS”? Scripted television or reality TV? Just this week I read about a local police detective who solved a 25-year-old homicide case. In contrast, fictional TV detectives almost always get their man by the end of the show. Ah, the tension between reality (how things actually are) and idealism (how we want them to be).

“The Annunciation” (1898), a painting by 19th century African-American artist Henry Owassa Tanner, provides us with a great opportunity to explore this tension even while thinking on a Christmas theme. Trained under Thomas Eakins, Tanner’s work is best classified under the heading of realism. This term was coined by French artist Gustave Courbet who said things like, “Painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist of real and existing things.” He painted only what he saw or had seen, hence his famous quote, “I have never seen angels. Show me an angel and I will paint one.” Courbet scandalized the Parisian art world by his unembellished depiction of everyday people.

This brings us back to Tanner’s Annunciation. The descriptive title tells us what we are seeing. The angel Gabriel approached Mary to reveal her status as theotokos, “God-bearer”. Though still a virgin, she would carry the Son of God within her womb (Luke 1:26-38). The ancient promise to Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:15) was about to come to fulfillment.

Let’s play the imagination game. In your mind, what would a first-century Jewish young woman of modest means look like? Think historically. Now look at the painting. What do you see? Is Tanner’s painting similar to what you imagined the scene should look like, if painted accurately?

The annunciation scene is a very common motif throughout art history. However, Tanner’s realistic depiction of this event stands in stark contrast to the idealized versions of nearly every other great artist. Tanner’s realism is the exception rather than the norm.

Look up the annunciation paintings of Botticelli, Fra Angelico, or Philippe de Champaigne, and you will readily see what I mean. A typical artist clothes Mary in sumptuous and costly fabrics and surrounds her with grand architecture. It is not that these painters actually believed that a first-century Jewish girl wore such clothes or lived amongst such buildings. However, historical realism was not their primary motivation. Because they were painting the bearer of the Son of God, these artists desired to depict Mary with dignity and honor.

But Tanner clothes Mary in simple peasant fabric and places her in a room with rough-hewn stone flooring and ugly, cracked plaster. Even the vase in the background is of the common ceramic variety with no adornment. While other artists depict Gabriel coming to Mary while she is reading, thus showing her intellect and piety, Tanner’s Mary seems to have been doing nothing — just sitting on her bed. Look closely and you will even see her bare toes. How shocking!

Take note how the simplicity of the scene conveys serenity, matching the humble submission to God’s will expressed on Mary’s face. Although there is no shining aureole over this peasant girl’s head, we cannot miss her special status as “the favored of God”. Tanner used his own beloved wife as the model, and so there is an obvious amount of affection brought into the rendering of Mary.

What about the angel? Mary gazes at something material within the light, but we only see the blazing yellow. Gabriel is either coming or going, or perhaps he stands in a doorway between the spiritual and material world -– a doorway for Mary’s vision but not ours. At any rate, within the influence of Courbet’s realism, there is no angel depicted.

Now, I am unwilling to accept the full worldview-implications of Courbet’s realism. It produced some magnificent works of art, but the philosophy undergirding it was not without danger.

However, I have to admit to loving Tanner’s Annunciation more than any other painting of this motif. My affection for the piece stems from my belief that Tanner “got it right” in terms of the real message of the annunciation and incarnation.

Space does not permit a full description of Tanner’s own religious pilgrimage. It seems he probably journeyed away from the traditional orthodox faith of his youth. However, the content of so many of his paintings are religious scenes from the Bible. He sometimes said, “I will preach with my brush.”

If The Annunciation is Tanner’s form of “preaching”, then what does his painting say?

First, Jesus came to the world under lowly circumstances. With a mother in such humble surroundings, it is obvious what Jesus’ socio-economic status will be in life. The King of creation came into the world as a baby born to a lowly mother in a small town located in a backwater section of the Roman world. This was hardly a glorious beginning, and yet this is how God chose to present His chosen one to the world.

Second, Jesus came into the world by being born of flesh, in order to redeem those born of flesh by his own substitutionary death. An angel can pronounce good tidings, but an angel cannot save the soul of a human. Tanner’s Annunciation shows Mary in undeniably human terms. She is just like one of us in respect to being flesh-and-blood.

Third, Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Tanner could not even bring himself to depict an angel, so there would certainly be no depiction of God on the canvas. Yet, we see here the young woman who would bear a child who would one day say, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” God is holy and unapproachable, but Jesus is Immanuel -– “God with us”.

Fourth, the only acceptable response to the revelation of God and His will is humble acceptance. Tanner depicts Mary in a moment of peaceful submission to the will of God. But even in this, Mary looks normal in the sense that we too could follow God’s will for our own lives even as she did.

The tension between realism and idealism finds no artistic solution in Tanner, for he is simply one side of the conversation. No matter how much I prefer Tanner’s realism, I must admit that the idealized depictions convey profound truth as well.

However, in some ways the person of Jesus Christ is the sole solution to this artistic problem, for in Christ alone will realism (who we really are) find reconciliation with idealism (who God made us to be).

As John 1:14 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Do you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? Gabriel spoke good news of peace with God and salvation through Jesus. Have you believed in this message? Christians, are you telling other people this good news?
Scott Lamb is pastor of Providence Baptist Church in St. Louis, Mo.

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  • Scott Lamb