Friday, April 29, 2011

Iconography of the Resurrection – Noli Me Tangere

Master Henri, Noli Me Tangere
from Livre d'Images de Madame Marie
Belgian (Hainault), 1285-1290
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquistion francaise 16251, fol. 45v

“But Mary stayed outside the tomb weeping. And as she wept, she bent over into the tomb and saw two angels in white sitting there,
one at the head and one at the feet where the Body of Jesus had been.
And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
She said to them, “They have taken my Lord,
and I don’t know where they laid him.”
When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus there,
but did not know it was Jesus.
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?
Whom are you looking for?”
She thought it was the gardener and said to him,
“Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,” which means Teacher.
Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.
But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father,
to my God and your God.’”
Mary went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,”
and then reported what he had told her.”
(John 20:11-18)

This dramatic scene between the Risen Jesus and Mary Magdalene from John’s Gospel has given rise to the Resurrection iconographic type called the “Noli Me Tangere”, the words “Do not touch me” from the Latin Vulgate, the standard translation of the Bible into Latin, made at the end of the fourth century by St. Jerome. More recent translations, held to more accurately translate the original Greek, such as that from The New
American Bible quoted above, translate this phrase as “Stop holding on to me...” or "Stop clinging to me...".

As with much of the iconography of the Resurrection the "Noli Me Tangere” seems to have begun to appear in the middle ages in Western Europe.

Early examples come from the hands of the illuminators of medieval manuscripts.
Noli Me Tangere from
Miniatures of the Life of Christ
French (Northeastern France), 1170-1180
New York, Morgan Library
MS M44, fol. 12r
Noli Me Tangere from Psalter
Flemish, 1250-1270
New York, Morgan Library
MS M106, fol. 71v

Master of the Roman de Fauvel, Noli Me Tangere
from Lives of the Saints
France (Paris), 1300-1350
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 183, fol. 60v

Jean le Noir and Assistants, Noli Me Tangere
from Breviary of Charles V
France (Paris), 1364-1370
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 1052, fol. 425

Executed in a typical Romanesque and Gothic manuscript styles, the  figures of Jesus and Mary gesture toward each other but do not touch. In the later images the risen Jesus displays his wounded hands and side and feet. Mary kneels before him.

Two early examples of larger scale wall paintings come from the two “fathers” of what would become the Italian Renaissance – Giotto and Duccio.

Giotto, Noli Me Tangere
from Arena Chapel
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Arena Chapel

Duccio, Noli Me Tangere
from Maesta Altarpiece
Italian, 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

Clearly, the overall iconography is being set in these early images. Since all Western languages are read from left to right this is the direction in which the action flows. The kneeling Mary is on the left and the Risen Jesus is shown moving toward the right. This is the layout for the majority of later images. 

Fra Angelico, Noli Me Tangere
Italian, 1440-1442
Florence, Museo di San Marco
Franciabigio, Noli Me Tangere
Italian, 1520-1525
Florence, Museo del Cenacolo di San Salvi

However, some artists reversed this arrangement to dramatic effect. The first is Titian. He reverses the motion to a right to left movement and reinforces the motion by placing a tall tree behind Jesus, so that the image becomes a great sweeping S-shaped arc from the kneeling Mary to the top of the tree. The motion of Jesus, as he pulls his robe away from Mary’s grasp, is almost dancelike.

Titian, Noli Me Tangere
Italian, 1511-1512
London, National Gallery

Rembrandt, The Risen Christ Appearing to
Mary Magdalene
Dutch, 1638
London, Royal Collection

Another notable exception to the left to right motion is Rembrandt’s charming painting “The Risen Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene” in the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace. Jesus, wearing a hat and carrying a spade, stands behind the startled Mary. Their figures occupy the center of the composition and are arranged in a pyramidal composition. Around them the landscape reacts to the gradually increasing light of dawn. In this dawning light we can see the mastery of light effects for which Rembrandt is justly famous.

Tissot, Noli Me Tangere
French, 1884-1896
New York, Brooklyn Museum,

Closer to our own day the subject was addressed by the Franco-British painter James Tissot, who spent the last twenty years of his life in illustrating Biblical subjects after much research and visits to the Biblical lands. His interpretation, located today in the Brooklyn Museum, shows a different imagining of the subject. Here Mary lies prone before Jesus, who appears to be reaching down to her, and the motion is front to back in the pictorial space.

Dali, Noli Me Tangere
from Biblia Sacra, Vol. 5 No. 20,

Salvador Dali also imagined the scene in his Biblia Sacra of 1969. Here the image is at first difficult to read, but as one looks it becomes clearer. The figures of Mary and Jesus are brought together into a great curve, only their respective heads appearing as clearly defined. She really is clinging to him and appears to be trying to touch his face, while he appears to have grasped her gently around the wrist.

Clearly, through the centuries, this dramatic and personal encounter between the Risen Christ and the faithful Mary Magdalene has given artists plenty of food for their imaginations.