“How Can This Be?”


Henry Ossawa Tanner was an African-American artist who fled the racial restrictions of America in the late 1800s and moved to Paris. There he enjoyed much success and by 1900, he was among the leading American artists. Many considered him the premier biblical painter of his day.

Tanner’s depiction of the moment when the angel Gabriel tells Mary she is with child (the Annunciation) is filled with warm glowing colors that draw you in. How young and innocent Mary looks, sitting on her bed, bed clothes spilling onto the floor, head slightly bowed, fingers interlaced. What must have been going through her mind? “How can this be?” she inquires.

And what is with the wrinkle in the carpet? Perhaps she disturbed the rug when the angel first appeared, turning suddenly or falling back, startled by the light.

One thing I love about this painting (and there are many) is that it doesn’t have the conventions usually found in paintings such as these. This painting has a more modern feel than others painted in this time period. A winged angel in a flowing robe is replaced with a warm, glowing shaft of light. Mary is not an overly-humble maiden with an expressionless face sporting a halo. She is dressed in rumpled Middle Eastern peasant clothing, not the usual flowing robes. Rarely had paintings showed Mary’s feet touching the floor out of respect, but here, a modest bare foot peaks out from under the covers, emphasizing her humanity.

This Sunday, December 2, is the first Sunday in Advent—a time when we wait for the coming of the Christ-child. By capturing this pivotal moment in human history, Tanner invites us to take a deep breath as we, too, wait. As we participate in this moment of hope, fragile hope.

Being Human connection: An insane, impossible, unbelievable message has just been delivered. Do we dare to believe it? Do we, too, ask, “How can this be?”

Featured image: Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation, 1898, Philidelphia Museum of Art

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” -Luke 1:30-34