Titian’s Noli Me Tangere offers a strikingly erotic interpretation of the encounter between Christ and Mary Magdalene on the morning of the resurrection. On a secluded hilltop far from the sleepy Venetian town in the distance, Christ and Mary meet in intimacy as though they are lover and beloved.
Drawing upon an established iconographic tradition (Baert 2007), Titian depicts Christ with a spade in his hand; this alludes to John 20:15, where Mary mistakes him for a gardener. Aside from two fading marks of his passion on his feet, his resurrected body is exquisite—the Renaissance ideal of male beauty. The white burial cloth draped around Christ’s shoulders and loins provides minimal covering for his perfected physical form. His gaze rests lovingly on the woman at his feet. And even as he withdraws from Mary’s encroaching hand, he subtly inclines himself over her, a gesture both protective and deeply affectionate.
Meanwhile, the Magdalene—clothed in opulent scarlet and white robes—has turned from the empty tomb upon hearing Christ call her name (John 20:16). She kneels before her risen Lord, an image of earthly beauty stooping in humble recognition of the greater, divine beauty of the resurrected Christ. Her left hand rests on the ointment jar, while her right reaches out, longing to touch the miraculous form before her. Her eyes seem to be travelling upward from his torso to meet his gaze, much as the beloved in the Song of Solomon searches for the gaze of her lover (2:14).
Titian’s painting thus presents this moment as an intimate encounter filled with love and desire, at once unconsummated (Mary is forbidden to touch her Lord) and miraculously fulfilled (the beloved has found her lover). Christ ‘touches’ Mary, not with his physical body, but with the revelatory knowledge of his resurrected body.
Baert, Barbara. 2007. ‘The Gaze in the Garden: Body and Embodiment in “Noli Me Tangere”’, Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art, 58: 14–39
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.