- - Thursday, December 24, 2015

Take your pick. Would you rather watch actors solve crime on “CSI” or watch actual police bust bad guys on “COPS”? Scripted dramas or reality TV?

I once read of a local police detective who solved a 25-year-old homicide case. Contrast that with TV sleuths who always get their man by the end of the show. Ah, the tension between reality (how things actually are) and idealism (how we want them to be).

The Annunciation, a painting by 19th century American artist Henry Tanner, provides an opportunity to explore this idealism/realism tension, even as we think on the themes of Christmas.

Trained under the monumentally important artist Thomas Eakins, Tanner’s work displays all the characteristics of realism, an artistic style developed in part by French artist Gustave Courbet who made statements like “Painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist of real and existing things,” and “I have never seen angels. Show me an angel and I will paint one.” Courbet often scandalized the Parisian art world by his unembellished depiction of everyday people.

Tanner’s painting comes with the descriptive title, making clear to us what we see. With a basic knowledge of New Testament gospel texts, we are to understand that the young woman on the bed is Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the scene depicts her communication with the angel Gabriel. Following Courbet’s maxim, the angelic presence is implied but not depicted.

And the message? Though still a virgin, Mary would carry in her womb and give birth to the Son of God (Luke 1:26-38). Gabriel revealed Mary’s status astheotokos, “God bearer.” One of the most ancient promises of grace, given to Adam and Eve, was about to be fulfilled (Genesis 3:15).

For just a minute, take even a basic understanding of history and play the imagination game with me. Imagine a young Jewish woman of very modest means, living 2,000 years ago in a small village within ancient Palestine.

Now look back at the painting. What do you see? Is Tanner’s painting similar to how you imagined the scene should be? I suppose it depends on how you define the word “should.”

This annunciation (announcement) scene is a common motif, painted again and again throughout the ages. Tanner’s realist depiction, however, stands in stark contrast to the idealist versions produced by nearly every other great artist. That is to say, Tanner’s realism is the exception rather than the norm.

When you look at the annunciation paintings of Botticelli, Fra Angelico, or Philippe de Champaigne, you will readily see what I mean. Typically, artists clothe Mary in sumptuous and costly fabric and surround her with grand architecture. Not that they actually thought a first-century Jewish girl wore such clothes or lived among such buildings. Rather, historical realism was not the driving motivation. Because they painted the woman who would bear the Son of God, artists throughout the ages depict Mary with great dignity and honor—at least according to their own conception of those terms.

But Tanner clothes Mary in simple peasant fabric and places her in a room with rough-hewn stone flooring and ugly, cracked plaster. Even the vase in the background is of the common ceramic variety with no adornment. While other artists depict Gabriel coming to Mary while she is reading, thus showing her industry, intellect, and piety, Tanner’s Mary seems to have been doing nothing—just sitting on her bed. Look closely and you will even see her bare toes. How shocking!

Take note how the simplicity of the scene conveys serenity, matching the humble submission to God’s will expressed on Mary’s face. Though no shining aureole hovers above this peasant girl’s head, we cannot miss her special status as “the favored of God.” Tanner used his own beloved wife as the model, and I would argue that this comes out in the painting as Tanner captures his own affections on the campus.

What about the angel? Mary gazes at something material within the light, but we only see the blazing yellow. Gabriel is either coming or going, or perhaps he stands in a doorway between the spiritual and material world–a doorway for Mary’s vision but not ours. Courbet says, “No angels!” and Tanner listens to his teacher.

Ok, so I am unwilling to accept the full worldview-implications of realism. Though it produced some magnificent works of art, the philosophical foundation of realism is not without problem or peril.

However, I must admit that I enjoy and embrace Tanner’s Annunciation more than any other painting of this motif. My affection for the piece stems from my belief that Tanner “got it right” in terms of the real message of the annunciation and incarnation.

Space does not permit a full description of Tanner’s own religious pilgrimage. It seems he may have journeyed away from the orthodox faith of his youth. However, the content of so many of his paintings are scenes from the Bible, and he often said, “I will preach with my brush.”

If The Annunciation is Tanner’s method of “preaching,” then what does his painting say and how does it compare with the biblical record?

First, Jesus came to the world under lowly circumstances. With a mother in such humble surroundings, it is obvious what Jesus‘ socio-economic status would be. The King of Creation came into the world as a baby born to a lowly mother in a small town located in a backwater section of the Roman world. This was hardly a glorious beginning, and yet this is how God chose to present His chosen one to the world.

Second, Jesus came into the world by being born of flesh, in order to redeem those born of flesh by his own substitutionary death. An angel can speak “good tidings of great joy,” but an angel cannot accomplish redemption and the salvation of a soul. Tanner’s Annunciation shows Mary in undeniably human terms. She is flesh and blood, and the child born from her womb would be flesh and blood.

Third, Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Tanner could not even bring himself to depict an angel, so there would certainly be no depiction of God on the canvas. Yet, we see here the young woman who would bear a child who himself would say, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”

God is holy and unapproachable, but Jesus came as Immanuel–”God with us.”

Fourth, the only acceptable response to the revelation of God and His will is humble acceptance. Tanner depicts Mary in a moment of peaceful submission to the will of God. But even in this, Mary looks normal in the sense that we too could follow God’s will for our own lives even as she did.

The tension between realism and idealism finds no artistic solution in Tanner. He is simply one side of the conversation, and no matter how much I prefer Tanner‘s Annunciation, I must admit that the idealized depictions convey profound truth as well.

Only in the person of Jesus Christ do we find a theological solution to this artistic problem, for in Christ alone will realism (who we really are) find reconciliation with idealism (who God made us to be).

It is little wonder then that, at best, every artistic depiction of Christ is partly true and partly false. Artist beware!

John 1:14 says of Christ, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Do you know Jesus Christ, the only Son from the Father, as your Lord and Savior? Gabriel spoke good news of peace with God and salvation through Jesus. Have you believed in this message? 

Merry Christmas!

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