Noli Me Tangere
Oil on canvas
101 x 91 cm
National Gallery, London
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For information regarding possible commercial licensing of this image from Scala Group, Art Resource or Bridgeman Art Library, click here.Text from Eliane Gondinet Wallstein, Magnificat.
When the young Titian painted the appearance of the resurrected Christ to Mary Magdalen, loosely based on the scene recounted in the Gospel of John (20: 11-18), he proposed a remarkably original interpretation. He clearly knew the masterpieces of his predecessors, such as Giotto, Fra Angelico, etc., but had no hesitation in inventing a type of representation which gave new life to the theme. Titian, whose real name was Tiziano Vecellio, was then only about twenty and had, in 1510, just lost the master who, through the stress he placed on landscape and light, had had the greatest influence on him - Giorgione. For Titian, landscape was henceforth never just an afterthought but was an integral part of a painting.
Thus we see here the meeting of Christ with Mary Magdalen in the middle of a landscape which seems to be one with them, such do the lines of the natural setting continue or rhythmically complement those of the two people. We are no longer in the garden of the tomb as described by John (19: 41), but in the open countryside bathed in morning light. On Mary's side, the curve of a hillside and an earthly settlement is echoed by the inverse curve of her body thrown forward to the ground. Christ's side of the painting opens out onto the blue tinged distances of infinity. But these two different worlds - human and divine - suggested by the division of space are subtly linked to each other: the bend of Christ's body is a direct continuation of the curve of the inhabited hillside; the line of Mary's raised torso continues that of a tree which, while balancing the right side of the landscape, directs the mind of the observer to the idea of a new life. Everything in this highly sophisticated composition is designed to underscore the importance of the gestural and verbal dialogue taking place in the foreground and to highlight the novelty of the message it conveys.
Mary Magdalen has just recognized Jesus by the tone of voice in which he calls out "Mary!' Titian shows the surge of emotion which casts her to the ground, an impulse just as quickly suppressed by Christ who draws back, speaking the words, Noli me tangere, 'Don't touch me." The painter has left out most of the references which traditionally help to identify the scene: there is no tomb, no herald angel. no halo, no standard marked with the cross in the hand of the resurrected Lord. Titian contents himself with placing a hoe in Jesus' hand, a reference to Mary's first mistaken impression of him (she mistook him for a gardener), and by placing in the woman's hand the now unneeded jar of ointment. Rather, the painter innovates by evoking the resurrection through the nakedness of Christ's body, covered only by the shroud in which he had been buried - a shroud whose white draping magnificently complements the red flow of Mary's garment. He accentuates the tension in the woman's movement and the closeness of the two people whose right hands would touch were it not for Christ pulling back in a subtle movement of refusal nuanced by the affectionate inclination of his torso bending over Mary Magdalen.
The atmosphere is that of the dialogue between the lover and the beloved in the Song of Songs: "I sought him whom my heart loves." Here Mary Magdalen finds the beloved she had lost only to be immediately asked to let him go again, to 'stop holding on to him" and to go back to his brothers to share with them the news that is to transform their lives (Jn 20: 18).
For Christ is just passing by. His dance like steps are directed towards the front of the painting, not towards Mary but towards us, the viewers. We thus find ourselves facing the Lord's approach, also invited to recognize him and to announce the joy of his resurrection.