When I’ve given presentations on the art of the Annunciation, the painting that is most universally admired is the version by the African American artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner (b.1859-1937). People appreciate it perhaps because of its realism, the beauty of its warm golden light, and the humanity and humility with which Tanner portrayed the teenaged Mary.

The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.

Luke 1:26-38

The Annunciation, 1898, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Annunciation, 1898, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Philadelphia Museum of Art

From the Philadelphia Museum of ArtTanner painted The Annunciation soon after returning to Paris from a trip to Egypt and Palestine in 1897. The son of a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Tanner specialized in religious subjects, and wanted to experience the people, culture, architecture, and light of the Holy Land. Influenced by what he saw, Tanner created an unconventional image of the moment when the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will bear the Son of God. Mary is shown as an adolescent dressed in rumpled Middle Eastern peasant clothing, without a halo or other holy attributes. Gabriel appears only as a shaft of light. Tanner entered this painting in the 1898 Paris Salon exhibition, after which it was bought for the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1899, making it his first work to enter an American museum.

Tanner also painted a study for this work, now in the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum.

Study for The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Study for The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner

From the earliest times, Christian writers noted the holiness of the Virgin Mary.

From the text of a fourth century homily, On the Annunciation to the Mother of God and Against the Impious Arius, attributed to a monk and disciple of St. Basil of Caesarea around the year 370 A.D.:

And so the angel arrived at the Virgin Mary’s home, and having entered said to her: Rejoice, full of grace! He greeted her, his fellow servant, as if she were a great lady…you who have been made worthy to provide a dwelling for such a lord…you have become the most pure workshop of the divine economy; you have appeared as the worthy chariot for our king’s entrance into life; you have been proclaimed the treasure, the spiritual pearl. Blessed are you among women….

Do not fear, Mary, for you have found favor with God. You have been made the most beautiful part of creation, more luminous than the heavens, more resplendent than the sun, higher than the angels. You were not lifted up into heaven, and yet, remaining on earth, you have drawn down into yourself the heavenly Lord and King of all. (Cited in Staples, Behold your Mother, pp. 64-65)

From Blessed John Henry Newman:

I ask, was not Mary as fully endowed [with grace] as Eve? Is it any violent inference that she, who was to cooperate in the redemption of the world, at least was not less endowed with power from on high than she who, given as helpmate to her husband, did in the event but cooperate with him for its ruin? If Eve was raised above human nature by that indwelling moral gift we call grace, is it rash to say that Mary had a greater grace? And this consideration gives significance to the angel’s salutation to her as “full of grace” — an interpretation of the original word which is undoubtedly the right one as soon as we resist the common Protestant assumption that grace is mere external approbation and acceptance, answering to the word “favor,” whereas it is, as the Father’s teach, a real inward condition or super-added quality of soul. And if Eve had this supernatural inward gift given her from the first moment of her personal existence, is it possible to deny too that Mary had this gift from the very first moment of her personal existence? I do not know how to resist this inference — well, this is simply and literally the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. I say the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is in substance this, and nothing more or less than this … and it really does seem to me to be bound up in that doctrine of the Fathers, that Mary is the Second Eve. (Newman, Mystical Rose, pp. 10-11)

Even Martin Luther wrote this about our Lady’s original grace in his Personal Prayer Book of 1522:

[Mary] is full of grace, proclaimed to be entirely without sin… God’s grace fills her with everything good and makes her devoid of all evil… God is with her, meaning all she did or left undone is divine and the action of God in her. 

So let us pray:

Hail Mary, full of grace….


4 thoughts on “Annunciation

  1. erikleo says:

    Has the faults of much Victorian art – sentimentality and a too obvious attempt at depicting social problems to gain our sympathy. Give me the Rennaisance artists any time!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. hermitsdoor says:

    Such light! A grand symbol throughout the Hebrew and Christian writings.


  3. […] also found this reflection and information about the painting – Yay […]


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