Meeting in the Garden: Intertextuality with the Song of Songs in Holbein's Noli Me Tangere1

Article excerpt

In their Noli me tangere images from the Northern Renaissance, Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein the Younger depict the encounter between Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ. They provide us images of the holy in humanity, and the human in the holy, in all their dimensions.

Particularly with the recent success of the popular novel The Da Vinci Code, the figure of Mary Magdalene has been one of ongoing fascination. At once saint and whore, beloved and reviled, apostle and outcast, the Magdalene has inspired the imaginations of writers, painters, sculptors, illuminators, and printmakers since early in the Christian era. In this essay, I will examine thematic depictions of the Magdalene in Noli me tangere images of her encounter with the resurrected Christ in the gospel of John.2 Over the time in which they were produced, these depictions have undergone fascinating changes that display intertextual resonance and offer deeper meaning for Christian viewers today.


The Noli me tangere scene, and images of Mary Magdalene generally, have received wide discussion in both art history and theological circles. In both cases, attention has been paid primarily to Titian's (1485-1576) sensuous rendering of the scene (1510-11), and to other painters of the Italian Renaissance. The theology of Titian's Noli me tangere has been discussed by John Drury3 and Neil MacGregor,4 who each draw attention to the postures and dress of the figures of Christ and Mary Magdalene as indicative of Titian's theological program. Mary Magdalene depictions in art have been analyzed in depth by Jane Dillenberger;5 however, she concentrates on penitent Magdalenes and does not discuss Noli me tangere images to any great extent. Margaret Miles has also discussed Mary Magdalene's portrayal in art,6 with special attention given to those depictions where the Magdalene is completely or partially nude. Mrs. Jameson's nineteenth-century discussion of the theme7 is interesting primarily for its dismissal of portrayals of Christ in gardener's garb as unbiblical and anti-Christian.

Among art historians, the images of the Magdalene that have received the most attention are Italian, principally Caravaggio's (1571-1610) Penitent Magdalene of 1597, followed by the sculpture of the same title by Donatello (1396-1466) of 1453-55. Both George Martin Richter8 and RM. Godfrey9 have treated Titian's 1510 Noli me tangere. A French Noli me tangere depiction has been discussed by Aina Trotzig in terms of the 1140-1150 sculptural program of Notre Dame d'Etampes;10 other discussions of Italian examples include those by Janet Cox-Rearick regarding a lost fresco by Bronzino (1503-1572);11 and by S. Tschudi Madsen on the 1590 painting by Barocci ( 1535-1612).12 With regard to Northern artists, Craig Harbison offers a fascinating Counter-Reformation explanation of Lucas van Leyden's (1494-1533) Noli me tangere engraving of 1519.13 The 1524 Noli me tangere panel by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543), because of its somewhat problematic attribution, has received little attention from art historians,14 with the exception of Viola Pemberton-Pigott,15 who concentrates primarily on iconographie issues of the botanicals in the scene, and on discoveries made during a recent infrared analysis of the picture; she does not discuss theological themes. I will focus on this painting, and a contemporaneous image by Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), since the visual theology of the Magdalene and her relationship with Christ that is offered by these two Northern Renaissance examples resonates most directly with current Magdalene controversies.

Among theologians and biblical scholars, Mary Magdalene has also been a figure of fascination. Feminist scholars have claimed her as an apostle and a paragon of female discipleship, particularly as they rely upon the apocryphal and gnostic texts discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Foremost among these is Antti Marjanen, who thoroughly analyzes the Nag Hammadi texts as evidence of a Mary Magdalene tradition parallel to the Petrine and Johannine traditions. …