In this contemplative image depicting Mary’s encounter with Christ in John 20, Fra Angelico captures the miraculous transformation of the world on the morning of Christ’s resurrection. The scene unfolds at dawn in a vibrant walled garden bursting with life. Scattered between delicate grasses and shrubs are tiny red flowers painted the same colour as the visible wounds on Christ’s hands and feet, reminding the viewer of the sacrifice that makes all things new. The dense forest beyond suggests that this renewal cannot be contained, but spills over into the entire world.
Significantly, Mary herself is caught up in this transformation. With her back to the empty tomb, she is portrayed in a moment of conversion. It is as though she is stepping out of the cave in Plato’s Republic, turning from the shadows of sin toward the resurrection light. Fra Angelico underscores this theme by evoking the idea—common in medieval Europe—that Mary Magdalene is the ‘sinful woman’ who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears in Luke 7:36–50. Just as Luke’s sinful woman repented through tears, Fra Angelico’s Magdalene is painted with a face flushed from weeping as she turns toward her Saviour.
Even Christ is depicted in an in-between state: hovering lightly over the ground, he already seems to be ascending. This artistic detail evokes the traditional patristic understanding that Christ’s appearance to Mary on the morning of the resurrection heralds the transformation of humanity’s relationship to God. Mary must let go of the earthly Christ so that she may attain the knowledge of the heavenly Christ, who ascends to the Father in glory.
To San Marco’s mendicant friars, the fresco’s message would be clear: being transformed by God begins with renouncing earthly desires, including the desire to hold onto or possess Christ as some sort of material object.
Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius VII.
Benay, Erin E., and Lisa M. Rafanelli. 2017. Faith, Gender, and the Senses in Italian Renaissance and Baroque Art (London: Routledge)