Noli Me Tangere - The appearance of Christ to the Magdalen


    This scene from the events of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ is a popular and emotionally resonant one. 
   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.  John 20 v 11 – 18 (King James Version)

     Anna Jameson, the Victorian writer on art, has much to day on this subject in her book The History of Our Lord as exemplified in works of art, (completed by Elizabeth Eastlake) and I'm beginning this piece with an extended quote from this. My comments will follow.  Note: her books are illustrated with only a few line drawings of some of the paintings referred to and it is not always easy to identify the pictures she writes about; over the years, both attributions and locations may have changed. I have done my best to track them down!

    'The appearance of Christ to the Magdalen does not seem to occur early in Art, but rather starts to view with that efflorescence of new scenes which marked the 14th century. The first great Italian painters alone seem to have understood its sublime import. Duccio and Giotto, and Martin Schon (Martin Schongauer) in Germany, show us the same Jesus, who suffered and was buried, risen again for out justification. The revered form and the gentle countenance of the Divine Victim, whom we have accompanied through every step of His precious Cross and Passion, are here restored for us – no longer weary, bruised, and dying, but fresh, vigorous, and with the standard of victory in His grasp; but yet the same Christ.   

  Duccio’s design is touching in its simplicity; the Magdalen as modest as she is adoring, and Christ as loving as He is divine. 

Duccio: from the Maesta, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena

No commentators, ancient or modern, have ever satisfactorily explained why Jesus denied to her that touch of Himself which he proferred to those of the doubting disciple. But in art this action, ‘Touch me not’, needs no vindication. He has passed the gates of death. She is still on our side of them. He is the same, yet mysteriously changed, for mortality has put on its immortality. A narrow Space only divides them, but yet it is ‘the insuperable threshold’. and she as those ‘who stretch in the abyss the ungrasped hand.’ Art, like music, is privileged to suggest many meanings besides that prescribed.
  Giotto is the only painter we have seen who brings before us a wider view of the scene. It would seem as if he had read the words of St. Chrysotom, for the two angels sit solemnly at the head and foot of the tomb, within a few feet of the Magdalen,  each looking and one pointing at Christ, as if they had just aroused her perception to whom it is she has so carelessly glanced at.  And she, dashing herself on her knees, is there before Him in a moment, her outstretched arms seeking those feet she had been wont to clasp, this making His identity as certain as His resurrection.

Giotto: Capella Scrovegni, Padua

Such representations, and we find them reflected in the miniatures and other forms of art of the period, are worthy of the subject, but art, though about rapidly to advance in all material powers and beauties, was also about grievously to decline in the respect for the simplicity of Christian truth. This decline naturally coincides with that phase of the human mind which preceded the invention of printing, when the grand old traditions based on scripture began to be cast aside, and when scripture itself, which could alone refresh or replace them, was still a sealed book. It was a fatal time to such subjects as the Agony in the Garden, and the Appearance of Christ to the Magdalen, in which the infusion of human and puerile conceits led equally to offences to the eye and outrages to doctrine.
   Giotto’s scholars seem already to have lost the real meaning of this subject. Their imagination found in it nothing loftier than the fleeting fact of the Magdalen’s mistaking Christ for the gardener.  All the pathos of her recognition, all the profound meaning of His identity, were lost; for in the place of Christ stands a figure shouldering a spade of a shovel – an evanescent oversight as presented to the eye of the weeping woman, a profane travesty as displayed to that of the Christian.
                                                                                                                              .    .    .    .
   Even the spiritually-minded Fra Angelico had his eyes ‘holden’ here, so that he neither saw the importance of preserving the Lord’s identity, nor the miserable absurdity of commemorating the momentary mistake of a tear-clouded eye. He also makes Christ shouldering a great spade, strangely incongruous with the glory that half conceals it. It was time now that pictures ceased to be the ‘books of the simple,’ when all they taught, in such a subject as this, was that souls returned to the body with a shovel over their shoulders.  

Fra Angelico: Convento di San Marco, Florence

  This innovation travelled slowly to the North. Martin Schon, (Schongauer)  in the fifteenth century, gives the same Christ whom he has entombed in his previous plate, only with a rich robe and the banner of glory. Albert Durer, in the beginning of the 16th century, seems to halt between the two opinions, and tries to serve both Wisdom and folly, putting the standard of victory in one hand, and a spade in the other. Yet there have been writers on art, and no common ones, who have approved this wretched conceit.. . . . . '


Martin Schongauer: Marian Library, Dayton Ohio

Albrecht Durer: Woodcut, British Museum

     As stated before, in subjects of Christian art, where the actor and spectator are under different conditions, which they almost always are, there must be two different views. But art can choose but one of them, and is bound to prefer that which addresses itself to the spectator. Thus the rich mantle, and the standard of victory, even the nimbus of the Saviour, are not intended for the Magdalene’s eyes. She knows Christ by His familiar personal identity; we know Him by his divine attributes.  Without them the story is not told, as art should tell it, so that those who run may read.
  Like all false ideas in art, this soon expanded into full-blown absurdity. No painter seems to have been able to resist the seductions of going wrong; the mine of false ore was diligently worked out.  Raphael himself led the van – if, indeed, the design ascribed to him be his – with a figure, old and clumsy, with disorderly beard and plebeian face, wearing a broad-rimmed hat, and with a pick-axe on his shoulder. The light that encircles this figure is utterly incongruous, and the marks of the wounds on hands and feet profane. But for these, He would look like some Mercury or Apollo, veiling his beams beneath a crafty disguise, in order to beguile the rather light-looking lady at his feet.
  Poussin equally bowed the knee to false gods in this respect. With a consistency in error worthy of a better cause, Christ is made digging up carrots, which lie strewn on the ground before Him, His foot on the haft of the spade, Such designs would be better withdrawn from the series of the Passion, and renamed as ‘tableaux de genre’, fitting any story to them that might suggest itself, for it is almost needless to say, that the Magdalene is as little honoured here as her master. If the painter’s object is the embodiment of a momentary blunder, how come she is consenting to it?  For every child who has read the story knows that this is not the person she turned to, recognised, and adored. 

 Engraving After Cartoon by Raphael for the Vatican Tapestries. 

Nicolas Poussin: Prado, Madrid.

My Comments
  In view of Mrs Jameson's opinions, it's probably just as well she didn't see this painting by Jan Breughel the younger - or at, least, I assume she never did. 

Museum of fine Arts, Nancy

   Never mind Poussin's carrots - Brueghel gives us a Christ who has produced an entire allotment of vegetables, and has clearly been busy loading up a cart ready to take them off to market.  

  Even given that Flemish artists could never resist  painting their fruit and veg., this is rather over the top. But do we go along with Mrs Jameson's thesis? 
   Well, only up to a point. Although she is rather dismissive of art's function as narrative, this seems to me to remain an important aspect of painting. The inclusion of a gardening tool clearly pinpoints the event as that involving the Magdalene. The gardening tool becomes an attribute. Many of the images include the Magdalene's attribute, the ointment jar, but we are not expected to believe that she always had it with her. 
    Perhaps an even more important point is a theological one. The crucifixion was seen not as a final event, but one of rebirth and regeneration, and the resurrection a demonstration of blossoming and fruitfulness. To quote Lancelot Andrewes, Christ was the gardener of 'the fairest garden that ever was, Paradise.' * 
    What better guise for the resurrected Christ, then, than a gardener? 

I would agree, though, that the idea did get a little out of hand. 

  Mrs Jameson picks up on an important point - what is the theological meaning behind Christ's noli me tangere request? And if the Magdalene couldn't, why was it fine for Thomas to touch him  a little later?

   The phrase from John's gospel, (Ch 20 v 17)  is taken directly from the Vulgate, Jerome's translation of the bible into Latin:

   dicit ei Iesus noli me tangere nondum enim ascendi ad Patrem meum vade autem ad fratres meos et dic eis ascendo ad Patrem meum et Patrem vestrum et Deum meum et Deum vestrum.

   King James version translates it thus:

   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.

  The problem is with Jerome's translation from the original Greek. Getting the sense right is a fraught business, and by and large it seems that Jerome did an excellent job.  But a more accurate translation of the phrase given in the Knox Bible:

  Then Jesus said, Do not cling to me thus; I have not yet gone up to my Father’s side. Return to my brethren, and tell them this; I am going up to him who is my Father and your Father, who is my God and your God.

A better translation, perhaps, but, had Jerome been more accurate, how many wonderful paintings would never have been painted? Images of the Magdalene holding on to Christ's feet would not have worked nearly as well. As with Moses' horns, Jerome's eccentricities have made a great contribution to art. 
  Let's finish with a painting that Mrs Jameson liked - well, she liked the Magdalene, even if the Christ didn't quite pass muster.  

   'Art can do no more in the delineation of an earnest, impetuous, and most beautiful woman. Her movement of recognition has been so sudden, that the delicate sleeve still stirs in the air. The Christ, however finely coloured, and forgetting His long scythe-like Instrument, is an awkward and unsympathetic figure. But Titian sought nothing more here that what he has rendered,  and we want no fiction of angels or tomb in that glorious Italian landscape. '

Titian: National Gallery, London

 *Sermon XIV, quoted in Christopher Irvine, The Cross and Creation in Christian Liturgy and Art.                    

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