NOLI ME TANGERE. DON’T TOUCH ME.
“Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
So spoke Jesus to Mary Magdalen when she came to his grave after his crucifiction. To her horror the grave was empty, but there were people all around it and one of them turned out to be Jesus himself.
I wasn’t brought up with the New Testament, and I’m having trouble trying to figure out what this story means. Why shouldn’t she touch him, when he’s standing there in front of her, seemingly alive and kicking? After all, doesn’t rumor have it that they were lovers? Is it because, now that he is on his way to heaven on such a very special ticket, she’s no longer clean enough for him? After all, rumor also has it that she was a prostitute.
Another translation is ‘don’t cling to me’, so possibly he meant to say: I am dead, you should let go and live your life without me. Which would be rather sweet of him.
Maybe it’s because he has been dead for a few days, so he could be carrying all sorts of nasty bacteria that might make her sick? That could very well be it, I have heard many Bible stories explained in such a pragmatic way. Although, it could also be ten months of social distancing messing with my brain here.
In any case, this story captured the imagination of generations of painters. Noli me tangere is also the title of a famous book about the Spanish colonisation of the Philippines and its film version. There’s an opera with the same name, apparently Petrarca used it as a metaphor in a poem, medical students are warned with it that they should leave certain bodyparts and ailments alone.
There’s even a theory that the Gadsden flag – that yellow one with the rattlesnake and the text ‘don’t tread on me’ – harks back to Noli me tangere. It was the symbol of various American military divisions and has nowadays been adopted by extreme right movements in the US – which explains why it was all over the place at the storming of the Capitol on January 6th.
One of the exciting things of such a recurring theme, is that you can clearly see the changes and developments in art. Let’s start with Giotto. This is one of the frescos at the Scrovegni chapel in Padua. As soon as I can go back to Venice, I’ll get on a train. I will book a double time slot, and tell you all about it! I meant to go last year, but then the floods put a spanner in the works.
Giotto di Bondone, ca. 1306. Thir-teen-o-six! Isn’t that amazing? Yes, to our eyes it still seems a little stiff, but it is such a huge leap forward from the flat renditions of Byzantine art. He is the first to add depth to his models, literally and figuratively speaking. And the first to paint sleeping soldiers – aren’t those guys supposed to keep watch?
Fra Angelico, more than a hundred years later, ca. 1442. His background is much more detailed than Giotto’s. Near Jesus he painted tiny red flowers in the grass. They look like drops of blood, echoeing the stigmata on his feet. He is also carrying a scythe or something over his shoulder – initially Mary Magdalen mistook him for the gardener, you see.
Juan de Flandes, ca. 1500. This John was Flemish, but in his twenties he left for Castille, where he was appointed court painter. That is why he is known as a Spanish painter, although it seems to me that his Jesus and Mary M. look decidedly Flemish. Luckily he ditched the clumsy halos of his predecessors.
Titian, 1514. Things are beginning to move and there really is something going on between the two. I’m sure I can actually see their bond. The way Jesus is trying to dodge her tells me he is doing so purely out of love for her. They are so beautiful, both of them! That tree seems to go through his head in a slightly awkward way, but it also sort of lifts him up, as a prelude to his ascension, while she stays close to the ground, literally down to earth. It is a gorgeous tree, a real Titian-tree. The foliage, by the way, is brown because of the discoloration of the originally green paint, not because of acid rain.
Paolo Veronese, ca. 1530. One more halo, but certainly not a clumsy one – Jesus really is the light here. A hundred years make a huge difference in this case. Veronese applies his stunning pastels, plays with light and shadow, adds a group of flustered angels in the background, and his Jesus is toned and muscular. It’s the height of the Renaissance. Almost all Veronese’s figures have gigantic hands – he probably considered that beautiful.
Hans Holbein the Younger, ca. 1530. Holbein was German by birth, but he started his career in Switserland. From there he travelled to France, possibly in the hope of becoming court painter there. That didn’t work out, but in 1526 he went to London and there, at Henry VIII’s court, it did. Big time. It is tempting to make fun of his Noli me tangere – Jesus looks as if he is about to deliver a karate chop, MM seems to think he is after her flask of oil, and one seriously wonders where that sea of light comes from, in a pitch dark tomb. But that’s not fair because it really is a beautiful painting that tells the entire story in a very clever way.
Lavinia Fontana, 1581. Jesus as the gardener again, with an outsized shovel and with a weird, rustic hat that hovers over his head like an off kilter flying saucer. He’s quite cute – chubby, a bit of a dad bod. Half cuddly hubby, half maffioso. Maybe Lavinia’s husband, Gian Paolo Zappi, was her model here. He was a painter himself, but he gave up his career in order to look after the kids and the household, so she could attend fully to her art. Wow! Gentlemen, do you hear that?
Abraham Janssens and Jan Wildens, ca. 1620. Two painters from Antwerp collaborated on this – Janssens did the figures and Wildens the landscape (he was considered the landscape specialist and painted backgrounds for many of his contemporaries). If I wouldn’t be familiar with the story, I would have given a totally different meaning to this – I’d have thought that the woman’s vegetable stall had been wrecked by a naked jerk with a shovel. And I would feel terribly sorry for her.
Rembrandt, 1638. ‘Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the tomb’. The only painting in this post that officially has another title. Typically Rembrandt again: with that light, that fierce landscape, but especially because of the expression of the characters – you can see the confusion in their faces and in their body language. And look at that angel, the way he sits! Don’t think I’ve ever seen a more approachable angel. The couple walking away in the bottom left hand corner is much more mysterious.
Simone Cantarini. Or is it Daniel Seiter? I can’t figure out who painted this, but I know it was around 1648. Cantarini was a pupil of Guido Reni, he studied and worked with the master in Bologna. Until they fell out, massively. Daniel Seiter was a Venetian who was very succesful and raked in commissions everywhere, from Tyrol to Rome. This Noli me tangere is now in the Schloss Schleissheim Museum in Bavaria. Whoever painted it, I think it is stunning. He so caring, she so full of anticipation – it is so intimate, lovers on their way to bed. Of course we know better – on account of the title, and a couple of subtle hints: the stick in his hand, undoubtedly the handle of some gardening tool, her flask – the symbol of Mary Magdalen, his blue robe (because blue pigment was so outrageously expensive, it was more or less exclusively used for divine figures, predominantly for the holy virgin). And then there’s that hand . . . in almost every painting Jesus has those ballet hands. The story tells he blessed MM, that’s why. I did notice that she often holds her hands that way, too – though not here.
Jules Valadon, second half 19th century. I came across this in the catalogue of a French art dealer. It is small, about 20×35 cm. Oil on a wooden panel. I can’t tell you much about the painter. He doesn’t seem to be related to Suzanne Valadon. I did read though, that he took a rather unpleasant stance in the Dreyfus affair – that horrible matter where French army officer Alfred Dreyfus was sentenced to lifelong imprisonment based on false accusations that turned out to be triggered by blatant anti-semitism. It pretty much split the country in two, and Jules here was a so called Anti-Dreyfusard. Not good, but this painting is breathtaking (there’s that dilemma again). I’m wondering – who is who? Is Jesus sitting and Mary Magdalen standing? Is that how he rejects her? Or is it the other way around: she sitting, bound to earth, and he upright, ready to ascend? With a bit of a halo?
There are hundreds of Noli me tangere paintings, all with something special, something unique. From the images in this post I like the Valadon best. Who knew? Maybe it’s because the landscape reminds me of the Negev desert near Arad, in Israel. The painting wasn’t even that expensive . . . I wonder if it is still for sale?