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.

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