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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Henry Ossawa Tanner and The First Visit of Nicodemus


Thomas Eakins (1844–1916)
Henry Ossawa Tanner, ca. 1897
Oil on canvas; 24 1/8 x 20 1/4 in. (61.3 x 51.4)
The Hyde Collection Art Museum, Glens Falls, New York


Henry Ossawa Tanner 1859-1937
Study for Christ and Nicodemus on a Rooftop
ca. 1898-1899
Oil on wood panel
9 1/2 x 13 in. (24.0 x 33.0 cm.)
Smithsonian American Art Museum


Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859 - 1937)
Nicodemus
1899
Oil on canvas
33 11/16 x 39½ in. (85.6 x 100.3 cm)
Joseph E. Temple Fund
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia




Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)
Nicodemus Coming to Christ 1927
signed 'H.O. Tanner' (lower right)
oil on canvas laid down on board
61¼ x 71 in. (155.6 x 180.3 cm.)
Private Collection


"My effort has been to not only put the Biblical incident in the original setting . . . but at the same time give the human touch ‘which makes the whole world kin’ and which ever remains the same.” Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1924, quoted in Hartigan, Sharing Traditions: Five Black Artists in Nineteenth-century America, 1985

Tanner was an African American artist who earned international acclaim for his religious paintings.

His father was a prominent minister and later an Episcopalian bishop and his mother a former slave who escaped the South through the Underground Railroad.

At age eleven, Tanner decided to become an artist, and nine years later the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts accepted him, the only African American out of two hundred students.

At the suggestion of his teacher Thomas Eakins, Tanner tried his hand at photography but had little success. He remained two years as a student under Eakins. Some stonger than usual bond must have been established between them, for twenty years later, Eakins would paint, and keep, a portrait of Tanner (see above)

Like many American artists in the nineteenth century, Tanner went to Europe, intending to study in Rome. After fourteen days in Paris, however, he decided to stay in France and enrolled in the Académie Julian.

Sales of his paintings of Bible stories financed his trips to Palestine, Egypt, and Morocco. Tanner kept close ties with his native country and was proud of his contributions as a black American, but chose to live in France, where he felt that his race mattered less to other artists and critics.

In 1996, The White House acquired his painting Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City. This was the first painting by an African-American artist to be a part of the White House permanent collection.



Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin. He is only mentioned in St John`s Gospel. He appears three times in the Gospel: the first is when he visits Jesus one night to listen to his teachings (John 3:1-21); the second is when he states the law concerning the arrest of Jesus during the Feast of Tabernacles and with Joseph of Arimithea dissents from the condemnation of Christ without his having been heard (John 7:45-51); and the last follows the Crucifixion, when he assists Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the corpse of Jesus for burial and for the Entombment(John 19:39-42).

The above works by Tanner illustrate the visit in the dead of night by Nicodemus to Jesus. The meeting takes place before the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.

At the meeting Nicodemus called Jesus "Rabbi".

Jesus's "miraculous signs" (mentioned by St John in Chapter 2 of the Gospel) convinced Nicodemus that Jesus is "...from God". In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." Nicodemus, confused and sceptical, asks, "How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!" Jesus then talks of what it means to be born again and the path to heaven. "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit." (5-6) Jesus speaks of himself as the Son of Man and how belief in Him is the path to eternal life. This is summed up in one of the most famous passages from the Bible, John 3:16:

"For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life."

Christian tradition asserts that Nicodemus was martyred sometime in the first century.

Nicodemus is venerated as a Saint by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches


In art Nicodemus is usually shown at the Crucifixion beside Mary, or at the descent from the Cross. The theme of Nicodemus`s first visit to Jesus is, rather surprisingly, rather rare.

Tanner's works combined a preference for religious painting with a marked taste for a restricted palette associated to night settings.

After 1894, Biblical themes which would preoccupy him for the rest of his life.

The study for Christ and Nicodemus on a Rooftop made Henry Ossawa Tanner`s reputation.

In 1899, his old art school The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts purchased the finished work above.

The subject of Christ and Nicodemus was particularly important to the artist as it appealed to both his religious and racial concerns.

According to Dewey F. Mosby:

"The subject touches on the artist's favored theme of rebirth, although here he reverses his age-instructing-youth motif. According to the book of John, Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, came to Jesus by night to ask him questions. Jesus said to him, 'except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.' The artist's father considered Nicodemus's visit to be one of three notable incidents of the second stage of Jesus's public ministry. The image of the rabbi coming to Jesus by night provided a biblical precedent for the worship habits of African-American slaves, as well as for post-emancipation practices. Slaves were not allowed either to have formal church services or to read the Bible, and their clandestine religious activities were perforce conducted at night." (Across Continents and Cultures: The Art and Life of Henry Ossawa Tanner, p. 48)

According to Mosby, the story of Nicodemus visiting Christ at night spoke to African American worship habits that Tanner remembered from his youth. After Emancipation, freed slaves continued to meet at night, as they had done when their masters had forbidden them to read the Bible

In 1927 he again returned to the theme and produced Nicodemus Coming to Christ which is in a private collection. The composition is different. Nicodemus is sitting on the ground before Christ. The conversation is not on the basis of equality but of master and teacher. Nicodemus is sitting on the ground. A seated Jesus is teaching. The night is darker. One feels that the meeting is being conducted in terms of hushed secrecy.

Nicodemus Coming to Christ (1927) was commissioned by the Richard Humphreys Foundation in 1924, though it was not completed until 1927. The delay was due to various personal tragedies that had occurred in Tanner's life during the period, including the death of his wife.

The commission was particularly important to Tanner as the finished painting was to hang in the Carnegie Library at the Cheyney Training School for Teachers, an African-American educational institution supported by the Foundation. He even agreed to reduce his usual price of $5000 to $3000 in order to paint a work for the school



The importance of this passage in Scripture was explained by Pope John Paul II in his homily in Lesotho on Wednesday, 14 September 1988, the Feast of The Triumph of the Cross:

"2. In the Gospel of this feast we are witnesses of an unusual conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. The conversation takes place at night because Nicodemus, a prominent Jew, went to talk with Christ under the cover of darkness. Christ leads this man, a teacher, to the very heart of the mystery revealed by God. It is the mystery of the Son of God who descended from heaven and, as the Son of Man, accomplished the messianic mission among the people of Israel.

This mission was directed towards “the lifting up” of Christ on the Cross. Jesus says to Nicodemus: “The Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert” (John. 3, 14). Nicodemus knows the Scriptures well; he knows the inspired message of the Old Testament. He can recall the event that took place during the journey of the chosen people in the desert. At the command of Yahweh, “Moses fashioned a bronze serpent which he put on a standard” (Numbers. 21, 9).

This bronze serpent would restore to health and save the lives of the Israelites who had been bitten by the serpents. They were serpents with a poisonous venom; after being bitten by them many Israelites died. But the serpent made of bronze and placed on a high standard would become a means of salvation: whoever looked at it would live.

3. Jesus continues: “The Son of Man must be lifted up... so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John. 3, 14-15). The human family had received at the very beginning of earthly history a deadly bite from the “ancient serpent”. He had injected a satanic venom – the venom of original sin – into the souls of the first man and woman. And from that time onward, man’s history on earth has been burdened by sin. A tendency towards sin has generated many evils in the lives of individual persons and the communities to which they belong, in families, in entire peoples and nations.

“The Son of Man must be lifted up”, says Jesus to Nicodemus. And he says this with a view to his crucifixion: The Son of Man must be lifted up on the Cross. Whoever believes in him, whoever sees in this Cross and in the Crucified One the Redeemer of the world, whoever looks with faith on the redemptive death of Jesus on the Cross, finds in him the power of eternal life. By this power, sin is overcome. People receive forgiveness of their sins at the price of the Sacrifice of Christ. They find again the life of God which had been lost by sin.

4. This is the meaning of the Cross of Christ. This is its power. “God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved” (John. 3, 17).

The feast that we celebrate today speaks of a marvellous and ceaseless action of God in human history, in the history of every man, woman and child. The Cross of Christ on Golgotha has become for all time the centre of this saving work of God. Christ is the Saviour of the world, because in him and through him the love with which God so loved the world is continuously revealed: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son” (John. 3, 16).

– The Father gave him so that this Son, who is one in substance with him, would become man by being conceived of the Virgin Mary.

– The Father gave him so that as the Son of Man he would proclaim the Gospel, the Good News of salvation.

– The Father gave him so that this Son, by responding with his own infinite love to the love of the Father, might offer himself on the Cross.

5. From a human point of view, Christ’s offering of himself on the Cross was a sign of contradiction, an unthinkable disgrace. It was, in fact, the most profound humiliation possible.

In today’s liturgy, the Apostle Paul speaks to us in words that capture the mystery of the Cross of Christ: “His state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are; and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a Cross. But God raised him high” (Phil. 2, 6-9).

Through his self-emptying on Golgotha, in the disgrace of the Cross and the crucifixion (at least in the human way of understanding these events) Christ receives the highest exaltation. In God’s eyes, the Cross is the greatest triumph. The way of human judgement is very different from God’s. God’s judgement far surpasses ours. What seems to us to be failure is, in God’s eyes, the victory of sacrificial love.

It is precisely this Cross of human disgrace that bears within itself the source of the exaltation of Christ in God.

“God raised him high and gave him the name which is above all other names so that all beings in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld, should bend the knee at the name of Jesus and that every tongue should acclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Ibid. 2, 9-11).

To the eyes of the Apostles this was revealed through the Resurrection of Christ. At that moment they understood that Christ is the Lord, that he has been given all power in heaven and on earth. At that moment their eyes and their hearts were opened, so that the lips of Thomas could profess: “My Lord and My God”! (Io. 20, 28). And once they had come to believe, through the power of the Spirit of Truth, they were ready to go forth into the whole world to teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Cfr. Matth. 28, 19). "