Great Paintings: Angels Appearing before the Shepherds by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Angels Appearing before the Shepherds
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Christmas is approaching. In order to celebrate the season, I want to start sharing paintings related to the holiday. Today’s piece is Angels Appearing before the Shepherds by Henry Ossawa Tanner.

To my mind, Tanner’s style can be best described as realism with a painterly, almost Romantic style. Tanner primarily focused on scenes of everyday life and religious paintings; his work was known and renowned around the world. Significantly, he was also one of the first African-American painters to be celebrated internationally.

The subject of the painting is taken from a passage from the Gospel of Luke, which describes how angels appeared to a group of shepherds to announce the birth of the Christ child:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” — Luke, 2:8–12

Although the bible is the source of much artistic inspiration, the annunciation to the shepherds

Is less commonly depicted in art than other religious subjects. Even so, Tanner’s depiction of the subject is strikingly different from older depictions of the shepherd story.

Angels Appearing before the Shepherds demonstrates a fresh and modern approach to religious painting. The piece portrays three massive and shadowy angels standing on a ridge; they gaze down at the shepherds with cool, impassive solemnity. The shepherds themselves are barely visible, tiny and ant-like against the rocky landscape. It is illustrated in a symphony of blues, creating a mystical, dreamlike aura that radiates spiritual grace and tranquility.

The painting conveys the gravity and profundity of the unknowable power of God. It is an emotive and moving piece of art, one that captures the feeling and spirit of religious experience. In Tanner’s loose brushstrokes, the viewer can undergo a moment of that spiritual exaltation, and that is what makes Angels Appearing before the Shepherds so powerful.

Originally published at on December 6, 2020.




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