Over the centuries, many artists have paired the Noli Me Tangere with another biblically-inspired scene—namely, soldiers sleeping outside Christ’s tomb. This latter scene is based on Matthew 28:12–15, where the chief priests attempt to cover up the resurrection by bribing the Roman soldiers guarding Christ’s tomb to say that his body was stolen when they fell asleep. Iconographically, these soldiers offer an intriguing foil for the Magdalene: whereas she hears and responds to her Lord’s voice miraculously calling her name, they remain deaf to the sound of angels heralding the resurrection.
David Jones’s image draws upon this traditional iconographic pairing. Here, however, the men keeping watch are not Roman guards keeping watch over Christ’s tomb, but British soldiers fighting in the Great War.
The artist, who was haunted by his own experiences in the trenches, portrays these men with admirable sympathy. Above their heads, the sun is rising over the horizon and angels are sounding trumpets of the resurrection. Yet these exhausted soldiers are too wearied to hear the heavenly music. Facing the empty, nihilistic tomb, these men are as much victims as they are perpetrators: robbed of their agency, the soldiers represent man’s enslavement under the horrifying conditions of war.
All of this is set in contrast to Mary, whose liberation and agency is made possible through her willing ‘enslavement’ to Christ. Kneeling before the risen Lord, she submits herself to his will and purpose. The reward for her faithful obedience is the knowledge of the resurrection.
Importantly, however, this contrast between the Magdalene—who sees clearly—and the guards—blinded by the fog of war—is not meant to chastise the soldiers, but to suggest the possibility of their final redemption. Can they, like Mary, hear the risen Christ’s voice and turn to embrace new life?