How To Read Paintings: ‘Noli Me Tangere’ by Fra Angelico
A biblical scene meant for contemplation in the private quarters of a monk’s cell
The artist who made this painting was Fra Angelico, an Italian painter who lived in the fifteenth century. His paintings survive on the walls of churches and monasteries across Italy, many of them in their complete form. They are beautiful works, expressive of complexities of the Christian faith and the underlying devotional practices of the brotherhood of Dominican monks, to which Fra Angelico belonged.
Despite their age — nearly 600 years old — these paintings have a remarkable vividness and clarity of vision. I’ve been looking at the work of Fra Angelico for many years now, and have never felt that his paintings look conservative or sleepy. This has conjured an idea of Fra Angelico as a free-thinking, charismatic and somewhat radical artist. In fact, the truth is more complicated than that.
In this particular painting, the kneeling figure of Mary Magdalene reaches out to touch the gown of Christ. In the same instant, Christ pulls away, his right hand gesturing to Mary “Noli me tangere” — touch me not.
The words give the painting its title. As Mary Magdalene reacts to the sudden appearance of Christ after the Resurrection, she reaches out to him, to which he responds for her to go to the disciples with the news that he has risen.
The painting is meant to capture the fact that Christ’s Resurrection was confirmed by numerous sightings of him by “witnesses”, rather than directly observed.
Prior to Christ’s appearance, Mary Magdalene had been waiting outside the tomb where his crucified body was being kept. She was present when the body was first entombed, and later, when the tomb was found to be empty she wept beside the entrance.
At this point, the mysterious figure appeared. He was carrying an implement, a hoe or a scythe, and at first Mary mistook him for a gardener. When she realised it was actually Christ before her, she reached out to embrace him. The episode appears in…