Friday, April 29, 2011

Iconography of the Resurrection – Noli Me Tangere

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

“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...".
Noli Me Tangere
from a Gospel Book
German, c. 1015
Hildesheim, Hildesheim Cathedral Museum
MS DS 18, fol. 75v

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
France (Northeast), 1170-1180
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 44, fol. 12r
Noli Me Tangere
Nine Leaves from a Psalter
German (Augsburg), 1225-1250
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 275, fol. 7v 

Noli Me Tangere (top level)
Italian, c. 1250-1300
Tuscania, Church of San Pietro
Noli Me Tangere
from a Psalter
Flemish (Bruges), 1250-1270
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 106, fol. 71v

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.

Noli Me Tangere
from the Hours of Yolande de Soissons
France (Amiens), 1275-1299
New  York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 729, fol. 6v
Master of Roman de Fauvel, Noli Me Tangere
from Lives of the Saints
France (Paris), 1300-1350
Paris, Bibliotheqe nationale de France
MS Francais 183, fol. 60v
Noli Me Tangere and Doubting Thomas
Leaf from the Ramsey Psalter
England (Ramsey Abbey), 1295-1315
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 302. fol. 3v
The illuminator who drew this Psalter's illustrations here puts together the two episodes mentioned in the Gospels in which someone reaches out to Jesus.  Mary tries to touch Him, while Thomas satisfies his doubts by putting his hand into Christ's side, with the guidance of the Risen Jesus Himself.

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

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./Scrovegni 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. 

Giotto, Noli Me Tangere
Italian, 1320s
Assisi, Basilica of San Francesco, Lower Church, Magdalen Chapel

Noli Me Tangere
from Fleur des histoires by Jean Mansel
French, 1450-1475
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 56, fol.57
Jean Colombe, Noli Me Tangere
from the Pontifical matutinale and missal of Jean Coeur
France (Bourges), 1460-1470
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G 49, fol. 116v

Tilman Riemenschneider, Noli Me Tangere
German, 1490-1492
Muennerstadt, Parish Church

Bramantino. Noli Me Tangere
Italian, c. 1500
Milan, Civico Museo d'Arte Antica

However, some later artists reversed this arrangement to dramatic effect. By reversing the motion to a right to left movement the artist creates a less static composition. In some cases Jesus' motion of pulling His robe away from Mary’s grasp, is almost dancelike.

Mario Balassi. Noli Me Tangere
Italian, c. 1632
Florence, Ente Cassa di Risparmio
Francesco Albani. Noli Me Tangere
Italian, c. 1644
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museum zu Berlin

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.

© M. Duffy, 2011

For a look at an additional aspect of the Noli me tangere type of image, please see Iconography of the Resurrection -- Jesus the Gardener