The Angel of the Lord Declared Unto Mary

SAINTS & ART: For humanity, today is a new creation. Today, humanity was made anew.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, “The Annunciation,” 1898
Henry Ossawa Tanner, “The Annunciation,” 1898 (photo: Public Domain)

For those of you who like to prepare for Christmas early, as of today you have nine months.

For the United States, as we count down towards a likely late June U.S. Supreme Court decision in Jackson Women’s Health Organization which — God grant — may finally end the abortion license in this country, today may be a good day to rededicate ourselves to the cause of the right to life. Today is, after all, about a moment of conception. The baby Jesus, conceived today, will have all his organs, a beating heart and a functioning brain, the ability to curl his toes and be just over two inches tall by June, when the high court is expected to rule. 

For humanity, today is a new creation. Today, humanity was made anew.

In Genesis 1, God’s Word is sovereign: He speaks and it is made. “Let there be…” and there is. 

But God made man in his image, in the divine image and likeness, male and female (Genesis 1:27). So, since man is the only creature God wanted for himself and not as a means to another end, nothing can be done about man without man. Man chose to sin. Fixing that would also require human cooperation.

In the Annunciation, that cooperation is given. A human voice declares “Let it be done to me …” — a voice that is receptive, not passive, leaving the initiative to God who is always the active agent of our salvation, but still an active consent — and thus truly active and creative. And that word, joined to God, brings forth the Word that was present at the first creation (John 1:2-3). 

A new world came into being on the Annunciation.

If, in the first world, God made man his cooperator in creation through the blessing of fertility — bring forth new human life — and of dominion over the world — creating from the raw materials of the world — then today Mary is the supreme expression of that cooperation, for by her maternity God and man are now one … and all men can be God’s children (1 John 3:2).

In his philosophical tribute to Our Lady, The Greatest Philosopher Who Ever Lived, Peter Kreeft observes:

Both God and Mary speak the creative word fiat, which is the command to “be” or “let it be.” Both God’s purely active word (and will) and Mary’s receptiuve word (and will) are creative. God’s creativity is initiative, like a man’s act of impregnating a woman. Mary’s creativity is receptive, like a woman’s act of accepting a man. It is not passive; it is receptive. Created nature is passive to God the Father as well as finite and temporal; but the Word of God, who is the Son of God, is receptive to the Father actively, infinitely, and eternally.

What Adam and Eve were supposed to do in relationship to God, Mary does — only better. That’s why she is the new Eve, the mother of the truly living (Genesis 3:20) — and a new world is created this March 25.

Mary’s “conformity [to God’s will] is not passivity because it is con-formity to the form that is purely active, namely, God’s will. God is not passive and insofar as we actively align our will with him, we also are not passive, even when we are receptive and even when we simply say, ‘Thy will be done’” (p. 127). 

In his first encyclical, Redemptor hominis, St. John Paul II quotes Vatican II in affirming that Christ “fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.” In a very real sense Mary, too, reveals man to himself in cooperation with God and what God has planned for “those who love him” (Romans 8:28-30, cf. 1 Corinthians 2:9). 

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) was an African-American artist who was probably the first Black American painter to gain international recognition. His 1898 oil painting, “The Annunciation,” now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was intended for the Paris Salon that year. (The Smithsonian holds a study of the painting.) Tanner had visited the Holy Land in 1897, in part to study its light and imagery.

One commentary emphasizes the Protestant influence on the painting. Tanner was a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. There seems to be a divergence of opinion as to whether his father, an ordained AME clergyman, did or did not want his son to be an artist, though he apparently supported his attention to religious themes. Perhaps there is an element of Protestant opposition to sacred art as a “graven image” here, but it’s also said that, in addition to his religious sensibilities, Tanner found religious art had a market. See here and here.

Mary is not designated with a halo and lacks the usual attributes of sanctity typical in earlier art (a lily, a prie-dieu, a book, etc.). Her garments are a typical peasant woman’s. The scene is a typical Jewish home. If art, like liturgy, is an expression of theology, then why have Mary sitting on a bed, given that Protestant sects like the AME respected her virginal conception?

In the desire to respect the difference between the sacred and the profane, the Archangel Gabriel appears as a column of light with amorphous human form, rather than as an embodied person. (The column of light perhaps also alludes to the fire that lead the people of Israel — see Exodus 13:21-22). One commentator notes that the vertical column of light intesecting with the horizontal line of the human shelf also forms a cross, the intersection of the divine and human. Mary’s expression is calm and receptively curious, in keeping with Gabriel’s counsel — to Mary and to all Jesus’ followers — “be not afraid” (Luke 1:30). That will be the motto of the Easter season, less than a month away (John 14:1; Matthew 28:4-5, 10).