Noli Me Tangere: an Easter iconography.

The Resurrection, Perugino, c.1507, Tempera on Panel, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

On Easter Sunday, we are often flooded with the beautiful images of artworks depicting the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. My favorite among these are from the Renaissance and their iconography is quite simple: the soldiers are asleep and are often pushed away by the magnitude and gravitas of what is occurring; the scene is centered around the risen Christ bursting out of that tomb on the green hill outside the city walls, with radiant light - with his right hand he is blessing the new creation whereas the other one he is holding the banner of the Resurrection.

Noli Me Tangere, Jacopo Pontormo, c.1530, Oil on Panel, Private Collection, Florence.

What happens next is narrated beautifully in the Gospel according to Saint John, here in the beautiful prose of the Authorized Version which follows the translation of the Latin Vulgata by Saint Jerome: 
But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, and seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her.

Noli Me Tangere, Fra Bartolomeo, c.1506, Oil on Panel, Louvre Museum, Paris.

Christ died on the tree at the sixth hour on the eve of the Sabbath, he was accompanied into death by Mary his mother and by Saint John, his beloved apostle - three days he rested, and in the mourn of the third he came back to life. We all know the story. His mission was accomplished and yet he did not show himself to his mother or to the apostles, he showed himself to a simple woman of the time, Mary Magdalene, she is the first one who hears the news from the angels and tests it herself moments later on her own skin - indeed, the first one to witness the Resurrection was a woman - perhaps as a message that the new covenant and its good news is for every-day, vulnerable people like you and me. 

Noli Me Tangere, Correggio, c.1523, Oil on Canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

The scene is quite touching, Mary approaches Jesus and he asks her why she is weeping and whom is she looking for, at which point she mistakes him for a gardener - she then recognizes him, at which point he asks Mary not to touch him, as the mission is not yet complete until his Ascension into heaven, he asks her to proclaim the good news to the apostles.

Noli Me Tangere, Duccio di Boninsegna, c.1310, Tempera on Panel, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena.

This joyful and yet poignant passage has been a popular moment for Christian artists to immortalize. It constitutes the iconography of the Noli Me Tangere - Do Not Touch Me. The history of this theme in Christian art starts during the late Middle Ages, in what some would call the "proto-Renaissance" (a term I am not very friendly with), with Duccio di Boninsegna and Giotto traditionally being among the first ones to depict it in the first years of the 14th century. The iconography of the Noli Me Tangere stems from that of the Resurrection and indeed in Giotto's example the two scenes coexist at the same time, this would also occasionally be repeated by other artists. 

Noli Me Tangere, Giotto, c.1305, Fresco, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

What happens is quite simple and yet beautiful. Christ, stands in a bucolic scene not far away from the tomb, he is either dressed as a gardener or in his white Resurrection garments, his gardener apparel, complete with hat and shovel, is to be found on the ground, in order to symbolize the Magdalene's confusion. Mary kneels in awe before our Savior, who gently keeps her away with a stoic, solemn gesture - his story is not yet fully complete.

Noli Me Tangere, Fra Angelico, c.1440, Fresco, San Marco, Florence.

This iconography was at the height of its popularity during the Renaissance. Starting from Fra Angelico in his cycle at the Convent of San Marco in Florence, from the mid-15th century. The scene was also depicted by the great masters of the High Renaissance such as Perugino. Perhaps, my favorite depictions of the Noli Me Tangere are to be found in the great works of the late Renaissance masters, vulgarly called the Mannerists, among them are the beautiful depictions works by Correggio, Pontormo, and dare I add among them Titian. 

Noli Me Tangere, Titian, c.1511, Oil on Canvas, National Gallery, London.

Here in Rome, I was always struck by a local, Marcello Venusti, who worked on a beautiful canvas for the baptistry at Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Finally, also the great Baroque masters made great use of this iconography, an example I do like is the beautiful Noli Me Tangere by Claude Poussin which in a way mixes both the old and the new. It keeps the traditional iconography of both the Resurrection and the Noli Me Tangere but it also adds to them the great Baroque innovation of setting figures or events within a larger landscape. 

Landscape with Noli Me Tangere, Claude Lorrain, 1681, Oil on Canvas, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt.

This is a favorite iconography of mine which conveys many messages, I do like the powerful depictions of the Resurrection, don't get me wrong but I also like these, because in them one gets also the gentleness and the human dimension of the Resurrection, with Christ having first revealed himself to perhaps the one we would think less worthy or important enough to see him, but yet without touching, as his mission wasn't yet complete without the Ascension, and it still isn't to this day - as a sign that the full victory still has to be accomplished, our victory, in Christ Jesus. It is such a lovely, graceful but yet powerful iconography to me. A blessed and joyful Easter to all of you.

Noli Me Tangere, Marcello Venusti, c.1575, Oil on Canvas, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome.


Popular Posts