Fra Angelico’s ethereal frescoes in Florence’s Dominican Convent of San Marco were created not as decoration, but as aids to contemplation and devotion. His Noli Me Tangere is one of several frescoes adorning the walls of the private dormitory cells where the monks of the convent slept and prayed in solitude. Depicting scenes from the life of Christ, these images would have provided each cell’s inhabitant with both a source of contemplation, and with a reminder of his vocational duties.
To the monk living in this particular cell, Fra Angelico’s Noli Me Tangere would have served as a reminder of his anointed duty to preach the message of salvation to the world.
Christ’s charge to Mary Magdalene in John 20:17 is to deliver the news of the resurrection to the disciples. This would have been a particularly worthy subject of contemplation to the followers of Dominic, who founded his Order to spread the message of salvation through preaching. As the Apostle to the Apostles, Mary is the first to bring this message to the world.
Fra Angelico’s Noli Me Tangere thus presents Mary as witness to the resurrection who offers herself to Christ in obedience and love. His scene captures the moment of recognition, when Mary realizes that the man who calls her by name is not a gardener, but the living Christ. Humbling herself before him, Mary gazes on his face with absolute serenity. She reaches out to touch the miraculous body of her Lord. Yet notice how Mary’s arms are not so much extending forward as they are opening outward.
Mary is offering herself to Christ’s service. And Christ, in turn, speaks to Mary, anointing the woman who had come seeking to anoint him: henceforth, her task will be to openly deliver the good news of the resurrection.
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)
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.