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). Then: the terrible pathos of the Lamentation as the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and St John gather at the foot of the Cross; the Deposition as Christ’s pale and bleeding body is lowered, and the Entombment, a solemn, seemingly final farewell.
Some painters choose for the next scene Christ Rising from the Tomb, square-shouldered and majestic, as Roman soldiers sleep on the ground. Piero della Francesca’s ‘The Resurrection’ (1460s) is a fine, triumphant example. But this is the Marvel comics approach: the hero shrugs off the rubble to fight the final act. Those artists who choose the Noli Me Tangere are subtler. They allow an exhalation of breath, a gathering of nerves. They even allow a woman to take the stage. Noli Me Tangere scenes were popular in the psalters made for beguines — the lay sisterhoods which began in the Low Countries in the 12th century. If you were a young woman, unable to read, looking up at a church fresco in 14th-century Italy, with whom would you identify? A Roman soldier in uniform? Or Mary dropping her unguent jar in surprise?
In interviews, the cast and creative directors of the new film Mary Magdalene have talked as if they were the first people ever — how radical, how feminist, how post-Weinstein — to think of telling the story from Mary’s point of view. The Italians were already at in the 14th century. Both Duccio in his ‘Maestà’ altarpiece for Siena Cathedral (1308–11) and Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (1303–05) choose the Noli Me Tangere. Giotto combines the two themes: snoring soldiers on the left, Christ and kneeling Magdalene on the right. Giotto’s Christ is so anxious that Mary Magdalene should not touch him that he has butted up against the edge of the painted frame. This is a favourite Giotto trick. His players are always exiting stage left or barging in stage right, most ingeniously in the Betrayal scene when a pitchfork mob crowds to see Judas give his terrible kiss. Duccio’s Christ is a more sculptural figure, staying Mary with a barely raised hand as if a conductor urging: ‘diminuendo’.
In later centuries, particularly in the Netherlands and Germany, the meeting becomes more animated. ‘Passion plays’ performed by costumed brethren or strolling actors on feast days had turned Christ’s disguise in the garden into an important theatrical device. The ‘Ta-da!’ moment of revelation made its way into art as Mary falls to her knees. In Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut (1511) , Christ’s crown of thorns, worn in previous scenes, has become a floppy all-weather sunhat. He carries a spade on one shoulder. He might have risen from the potting shed, not the tomb. The only clue that this is not the gardener on his rounds, are the stigmata on His hands and feet. Mary steadies her unguent pot as if she had knocked it as she collapsed.
Graham Sutherland brought the holy garden into our own age for his Chichester Cathedral painting (1960). Christ, again in a straw hat, ascends a fire escape-type staircase above a trellised courtyard garden. Mary Magdalene raises her arm towards Him, but He is already on His way up.
On Easter Sunday, in the garden or in the churchyard, among rhubarb and spring primroses, think of Mary, of her shock and her delight as she recognises the face below the gardener’s brim.