34 1/8 x 42 5/8 in. (86.7 x 108.3 cm)
Henry Ossawa Tanner, American, (1859–1937)
Today we focus on a scene painted in 1898 depicting only Mary and just a suggestion of the child Jesus. The painter of this unconventional picture was unconventional himself. Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, moved to Philadelphia as a teenager and when he started painting, he expatriated to France breaking societal patterns to become the first African American man to receive international acclaim as a painter. His subsequent visits to the Holy Land enabled him to study in detail the environment where Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived. But there is no Holy Family in this scene. It’s about Mary.
We see here Mary dressed in local garb and sitting on a rug atop the stone floor of a small, unfurnished, cold-looking room. The only hint of a divine child is the halo above a crumpled pile of blankets. Head tilted, Mary looks forlorn as she gazes upon the blankets. Clearly, Tanner wants us to imagine what she is thinking and feeling. Is she feeling alone, frightened, unsure of what the future holds? What do you think?
Look at the single window opening in the thick stone wall. It is the only source of light that casts a shadow on the opposite wall. Of course, it is a shadow of Mary, but it is also the shadow of the jug that sits on the windowsill. Why so? In Christian iconography Mary is repeatedly evoked as a vessel, that immaculately conceived body containing the divine Son of God. In fact, there are three vessels in this picture. Consider the famous Litany of Loreto which calls Mary “Spiritual Vessel,” Vessel of Honor,” and “Singular Vessel of Devotion.” Do you think that Mary as a woman vessel is feeling “empty” now that she has given birth to this Son of God?
So, this picture is all about Mary in her role as woman and mother. She was so important to Tanner as woman that he employed his own newlywed wife, a Swedish-American woman, as his model for this obliquely tender, locally sourced scene.
This has always been one of my favorite paintings. I am struck by the thoughtfulness of Mary, the focus, the attention she is paying to the small bundle beside her. The common view of the painting is that the halo indicates the presence of the Christ child somewhere in that bundle of cloth. She has already had such a journey, literally and figuratively, to give birth to this child. Angelic messengers, a strenuous trip just as she is about to give birth, and then there were those shepherds talking about another angel, no angels, telling them who this child is. Is he really the Messiah, the one who is to save all of us. Is that really harder to believe than anything else that has happened so far. If he is the Messiah, why has his birth been so hard, in a backwater town. Will his life be as hard?
I have often wondered why Mary’s clothes are trimmed in red, the color or blood. Does Mary have some idea of what is in store? After all, did not Simeon say some strange things at the temple, something about “destined for the rise and fall of many” and “a sword shall pierce your heart as well.” What can all of this mean?
Tanner saw Mary as a “model of faith” one of the reasons that he painted her so often. So, while there is sadness in Mary’s face, I cannot help but think that with a woman of faith there also has to be hope. This child has come to save us. That alone is a message of hope. Mary must be hopeful that no matter what is to come, what darkness, the light that this child brings will not be overcome. That no matter what evil this child faces he will always choose love. Amid such tender caring and concern in the face of Mary that is the question for me this Christmas. Can I hold on to hope? In a world that is torn by war and genocide and seems to be less and less God’s world can I sit with Mary and take comfort in the words of Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”