Hail, Mary!

Henry Ossawa Tanner - The Annunciation

I’m currently reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s Mary Through the Centuries, looking at the different ways in which the Blessed Virgin Mary has been understood and honoured throughout the centuries. Fascinating book. Pelikan also wrote the Encyclopaedia Britannica article MARY, which I’ll have to check out at some point.

Pelikan points out that the Annunciation is probably the most frequently depicted incident in Mary’s career, and the book’s colour plates consist entirely of paintings and other artworks on this theme, one of which is this stunning 1898 painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner, above (click the image for a larger version). Definitely one which meets Alan Bennett’s definition of a great artwork: namely, one which you are tempted to carry out of the gallery under your coat.

(Incidentally, I was going to put, as a caption to this painting, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word”. But looking at it again, I think it is showing an earlier stage in the conversation: the look on Mary’s face seems more, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?”. If so, I think her expression in this painting can teach us a lot about the difference between a questioning, but genuine, faith – “How shall this be?” – and the scepticism of Zechariah earlier in the chapter – “Whereby shall I know this?”)

Rather different from the version by Orazio Gentileschi, dating from 1623, which can be seen here. It’s a perfectly fine painting, but it’s a bit too obvious that the artist was only using the theme as an excuse to paint the curtains in the background…

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