Easter, Day 2: When the Sabbath was past . . .

LOOK: The Three Marys by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Tanner, Henry Ossawa_The Three Marys
Henry Ossawa Tanner (American, 1859–1937), The Three Marys, 1910. Oil on canvas, 42 × 50 in. Fisk University Art Galleries, Nashville, Tennessee.

Based on Mark 16:1–4, this painting shows Mary Magdalene (leading the way), Mary the mother of James, and Salome approaching the tomb of their rabbi, Jesus, the Sunday after his crucifixion. They came bearing spices to anoint his body. They expected it to be a mournful day.

Imagine their response when they found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty! That’s the moment the artist Henry Ossawa Tanner shows us here. Not the Resurrection itself, but the emotional reaction to it, or rather to the evidence of it.

What do you read on the faces of these women? Surprise? Confusion? Fear? Curiosity? Caution? Wonder? Love? Some mix thereof?

They are illumined by the light of an angel who is out of frame and who will speak the news to them presently. Mary Magdalene lifts her hand to her face in a gesture of self-reassurance, while her companion raises her tensed arms at the elbow in a defensive posture, as I read it. Compelled but still somewhat guarded, they progress toward the mystery.

Born and raised the son of a minister in the AME Church in Pennsylvania, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937) was an African American expat to Paris whose biblical paintings, inspired in part by his two trips to the Holy Land, garnered him international acclaim. In Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, art historian James Romaine identifies Tanner as “the most artistically gifted and theologically astute American painter of biblical subjects.” A master of conveying nuanced mystery, “Tanner paints personal experiences rather than public spectacles,” Romaine writes, communicating more through suggestion than depiction and urging the viewer to undergo, like the figures in his paintings, their own experience of spiritual sight.

LISTEN: “Dum transisset Sabbatum” (When the Sabbath was past) | Text: Mark 16:1–2 | Music by John Taverner, 1520s | Performed by Alamire, 2010

Dum transisset Sabbatum, Maria Magdalene et Maria Jacobi et Salome emerunt aromata ut venientes ungerent Jesum. Alleluia.

Et valde mane una sabbatorum veniunt ad monumentum orto iam sole.

Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto.

English translation:

And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. Alleluia.

And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulcher at the rising of the sun.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.

The third responsory at Matins on Easter Sunday, this text has been set to music by many composers. The motet by English Renaissance composer John Taverner is the most famous. The video above is just an excerpt. The full piece lasts about eight minutes and alternates between plainchant and polyphony.

This song is on the Art & Theology Eastertide Playlist.

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