Magazine article The Spectator

Laura Freeman on the Resurrection

Magazine article The Spectator

Laura Freeman on the Resurrection

Article excerpt

Only the subtlest artists choose to paint the Noli Me Tangere scene, a still, small episode of calm after the horrors of the Passion, says Laura Freeman

In Nicolas Poussin's 'Noli Me Tangere' (1653) Christ stands with his heel on a spade. He appears, in his rough allotment smock and sandals, to be digging up carrots. In Abraham Janssens oil painting (c.1620), Christ strides among parsnips and pumpkins, cauliflowers and marrows. Mary Magdalene kneels in an artichoke bed. In Fra Angelico's fresco version -- or, rather, vision -- for San Marco in Florence (c.1438-50), Christ shoulders a hoe as he hovers above a millefiore carpet of wildflowers. His pristine robes give him away. No gardener would wear white to turn the compost.

The Noli Me Tangere scene is the loveliest in the cycle of Christian paintings that tell the story of Easter. It is the still, small scene of calm after the horrors of the Passion -- the sufferings of Christ in the last days of his life, from the Last Supper to the Crucifixion -- and before the exuberance -- clouds! cherubim! heavenly choirs! - of the Ascension. Whether in manuscript, woodcut or fresco, images of the Noli Me Tangere mark the moment at dawn on Easter Sunday when Mary Magdalene goes to the sepulchre to anoint the body of Christ with spices. He is not there. A man, who she takes to be a gardener, asks: 'Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?' When the gardener says 'Mary', she knows it is Christ and reaches for Him saying: 'Master!'

'Noli me tangere,' says Christ. 'Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father.' He may still look like a man, but His risen body is now divine. 'Cling to me not,' say some translators of St John's gospel, the only one to tell of this meeting in the garden by the tomb. In Titian's famous 'Noli Me Tangere' in the National Gallery (c.1514), Christ gracefully draws his linens between His body and Mary Magdalene's outstretched arm. It is Titian's painting that illustrates the cover of John S. Dixon's The Christian Year in Painting (£29.99, Art/Books), a gorgeous repository of Holy Week and Eastertide images.

Mary's is a very human response: 'Could I just pinch you and be sure you are real?' Her wonder anticipates that of 'Doubting Thomas', who will not be satisfied by the Risen Christ until he has wiggled a finger into the lance wound on Christ's side. Think of Caravaggio's 'Incredulity of St Thomas' (1602) -- not for the squeamish.

The Noli Me Tangere changes the pace after the agonies of the Passion. Pope Gregory had written that paintings are displayed in churches 'in order that those who do not know letters may at least read by seeing on the walls what they are unable to read in books'. That was the challenge for artists: how do you tell the story, capture the imagination? How do you make each scene distinct, yet lead the eye from one incident to the next? How do you... stop... minds... wandering...?

If you were a worshipper 'reading' the life of Christ in an illustrated Bible or in comic-book fashion -- scene by scene -- on the walls of a church, your energies, your devotions, your pathos will have been exhausted. You will have seen Pontius Pilate wash his hands of Christ. You will have seen Christ mocked and whipped (grim), lashed to the Cross as He bears it uphill to Calvary (grisly), and crucified (gory). …

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