The Hope of Mary

Imagine this: your world is collapsing. Somebody special to you has just died and the world is on the brink of a conflict that it has never seen before. And you are struggling to cling to any source of normalcy and hope in a world that has gone mad.

Sound familiar?

That is exactly the position that Henry Ossawa Tanner was facing in 1914. His mother had just died and the world had just started its first world war. Mind you, Henry Ossawa Tanner was no stranger to struggling. As an black American, he had lived in America during the time of the Civil War. And yet, living in Paris, France during the outbreak of World War I was a strarting experience.

And so, he did what he had done before in times of difficulty: he turned to Mary.

Take a look at this picture:

Mary, by Henry Ossawa Tanner, c. 1914. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., United States.
Mary, by Henry Ossawa Tanner, c. 1914. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., United States.

It is a picture of Mary just before the Annunciation. Mary is holding a lantern, and yet the lantern seems to be no match for the darkness that fills the room. It is incredibly dark and it is hard to make out her features. She is dressed as a poor peasant. Tanner had an eye for meticulous detail, and years before, he had studied

And yet, Mary seems to be waiting for something to happen. There is a palpable energy in the painting and her whole body seems to be poised for some sort of action.

It is a prelude to his painting, which he made over a decade before in 1898: his masterpiece, The Annunciation.

The Annunciation, by Henry Ossawa Tanner, c. 1898. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States.
The Annunciation, by Henry Ossawa Tanner, c. 1898. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States.

Rich and vibrant, the roomis thrown into a warm light from the Angel Gabriel’s presence. Mary sits on the bed, her head tilted curiously toward the angel, who is portrayed as a brilliant beam of light which brightens everything in the room, which had previously only been darkness. Her hands are clasped in prayer as she sits on her bed, and she listens attentively to the angel’s message.

The sitting on the bed is an interesting touch too, because it wasn’t necessarily the plan. In many Annunciation paintings, Mary is typically kneeling when she receives the Angel Gabriel. And, this might have been Tanner’s original plan at first. In fact, in his study for the Annunciation, you can see the blue mantle on the ground, looking suspiciously like a kneeling figure that was covered in blue.

Study for the Annunciation, by Henry Ossawa Tanner, c. 1898. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., United States.
Study for the Annunciation, by Henry Ossawa Tanner, c. 1898. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., United States.

And I can’t help but be struck with the similarities of these three pictures.

In all of these pictures, Mary is waiting. And by that, I don’t mean just sitting around passively. Far from that! In fact, in all of these paintings, there is a sense of urgency and action in these pictures.

But there is also a sense of hope. She is waiting for God, after all. And God loves us so much and He wants to bring us out of darkness into His Light.

And so, as we go through this period of waiting on this blessed feast day of the Annunciation, may we look to Mary and pray that we be more like her, allowing Jesus to enter fully into ourselves.

Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of four, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer.

3 thoughts on “The Hope of Mary

  • April 8, 2020 at 2:10 am
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    Our God is personal and generous! From time to time I have recorded on Twitter and elsewhere that my favorite painting is Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “Annunciation”. I actually celebrated one of my favorite
    Feasts this year, 2020, by participating in a lovely round of Tweets nominating favorite Annunciation paintings. But I, who am an enthusiastic fan of Karina’s and follow her on Twitter when I can, missed this particular post! Our Gracious Father, not wanting to deprive this loving child of a special treat, placed it in my path almost two weeks later, as I roamed around Twitter seeking something on St. Michael that someone had posted, but I had lost track of! I found the St. Michael post, but did not close my iPad, under the auspices of the Holy Spirit, the unseen participant in this Heavenly event that changed the world. Thank you, God. Thank you, Karina!🙏

    Reply
    • April 8, 2020 at 7:47 am
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      I am so glad that you accidentally stumbled on this article then! Tanner’s painting is just so powerful, and just looking at his various other paintings around the Annunciation was humbling, to say the least!

      God bless!

      Reply
  • April 11, 2020 at 3:05 pm
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    I have just discovered your blog (a random stumble around online searching for someone to link to about St. Rosalie) and was delighted to see this painting here! Thank-you for sharing!

    I was introduced to this art work several years ago by a dear friend and I was struck by how absolutely romantic it was.

    Probably not the most common response to the painting and I for one am no art critic, but the warmth of the colours, the richness of the detail and the fact that she is sitting on an unmade bed, the look of anticipation & quiet joy on her face… all these speak to me of a deep love between Our Blessed Mother and the Holy Spirit.
    it is a stunning piece to be sure. One that I hope to own in some fashion one day.

    I look forward to hopefully purchasing some of your work when your shop reopens! Do you ship to Canada?

    Thanks again! I will be sure to spread the word about your beautiful blog!
    God bless your work Karina!

    Reply

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