In their respective Noli Me Tangere images, Fra Angelico, Titian, and David Jones each counterbalance Christ’s seemingly harsh words in John 20:17—'Do not hold on to me’ or ‘Do not touch me’—by evoking the love shared between Christ and Mary Magdalene.
Painted on the wall of a Dominican friar’s cell, Fra Angelico’s fifteenth-century fresco was intended as an aid to contemplation and private devotion. Here, the meeting between Christ and Mary takes place in an enclosed garden, called a hortus conclusus (after Song of Solomon 4:12: ‘A locked garden is my sister, my bride’)—a place of innocence, and of intimacy. The resurrected Christ bears a cruciform nimbus, reminding the viewer of his divinity. His luminous body almost seems to hover above the delicate grasses and flowers beneath his feet, as if he is already ascending. Yet his gaze remains fixed on the woman before him in an expression of tenderness and compassion. Kneeling in wonder and reverence, Mary returns Christ’s gaze, showing her still tear-stained face. She is the penitent Magdalene, turning from the empty tomb at the sound of her teacher’s voice. As she reaches out to touch him, he raises his hand in gentle admonition and gives her a new commandment: to deliver the news of his resurrection to others. With great economy of detail, Fra Angelico suggests that the encounter with Christ is too precious and too intimate to be hoarded. For the occupant of this cell, this image would have been a powerful reminder of his own duty to follow Mary’s example by sharing the message of the resurrection in humility and sacrificial love.
This is a striking contrast to Titian’s painting, in which the love between the two figures is given distinctly erotic overtones: here, Christ the ‘gardener’ becomes the masculine seed-sower, and Mary as spice-bearer is an emblem of feminine beauty and desire. Unlike the humble and obedient Mary of Fra Angelico’s fresco, this Mary is caught in a moment of near-transgression: the artist captures her desire to touch Christ’s body through her outstretched hand, which reaches suggestively towards the knot that barely covers Christ’s loins. Meanwhile, the risen Saviour gazes lovingly upon the woman at his feet, and even as he leans away to resist her touch, he stretches himself over her, penetrating the space she occupies with his upper body. To underscore the sensuality of this moment, the artist envisions their meeting in a sumptuous garden, sparing no detail in his evocative depiction of the fertile landscape. In this painting, then, the love between the two central figures is charged with longing, as Mary’s desire to touch Christ’s physical body becomes the unattainable yearning of her innermost being.
Finally, Jones’s engraving also captures an intimacy between Christ and Mary Magdalene, but here, the overtones are sacramental, and a spare simplicity is used to suggest the purity of love between the two figures. Whereas Titian’s Christ wears little more than a cloth draped suggestively around his genitals, in this image Christ is modestly covered from head to foot in resurrection robes. Mary, too, is modestly dressed, wearing a simple dress and full headscarf—a stark contrast to the opulent robes worn by Titian’s Magdalene. Mary’s hands are raised towards Christ’s body, but, like the woman in Fra Angelico’s fresco, she does not seem to be reaching out to touch him; rather, her outward facing palms suggest that she is opening herself to receive Christ’s blessing. There is an unmistakable sense of intimacy between the two figures: as in Titian’s painting, Jones portrays Christ as protectively arching himself over Mary, whom he regards with tenderness and affection. And the tree branch arcs over them like a marriage canopy, binding Christ and Mary together in a shared physical space. Yet the exchange of love here is unmistakably sacramental: Christ’s gift of sacrificial love—represented by the wounds on his hand and side—is received and reciprocated by Mary’s loving gaze.
For each of these artists, the encounter between Christ and Mary Magdalene in John 20 represents a convergence of human and divine love. While Titian’s sensual image affirms the goodness of human longing after the divine, Fra Angelico’s fresco invites the beholder to contemplate and respond to the calling of this love. Finally, Jones suggests to his viewer that this love remains available to all through the sacramental gifts of the Church. In vastly different ways, then, each artist suggests that Christ’s injunction not to touch is an invitation to relationship rather than a reproach against our humanity.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rab-boʹni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” 18Mary Magʹdalene went and said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.