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 the gospel of John 20:17, which in the King James Version of the Bible reads:
Jesus saith to her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended
to my Father; but go to my brethren, and say to them,
I ascend to my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God.
One of the fascinating aspects of Fra Angelico’s art is that much of it can be seen in its original context. He painted largely in the medium of fresco – a technique which paints directly onto wall plaster. In other words, his paintings have a location, rather than being painted on a transportable medium like canvas or wood — and they can still be seen in those locations today.
This painting is in the convent of San Marco in Florence, which was taken over by the Dominican order in 1436. At the time, Fra Angelico lived in the ministry at Fiesole, a small hilltop town that looks down on the city of Florence.
In the early 1440s, he was commissioned to decorate the living quarters of San Marco, most especially the monks’ dormitory cells of the convent. Together with his assistants, he painted images across forty-four dormitory cells in the newly acquired monastery. The dormitory cells cover three sides of the central cloister: with the southern corridor of seven cells designated for the novice friars, the eastern corridor of twenty-one cells for the more experienced clerics, and the northern corridor reserved for the lay-brothers.
The paintings were made in fresco, a technique by which paint is applied directly onto freshly laid plaster — the word “fresco” is derived from the Italian affresco meaning “fresh”. It is a difficult method of painting because plaster tends to dry quickly, so the artist must also work fairly rapidly. Most fresco paintings were made in stages, with a small section of plaster applied and painted on before it set, followed by another section, building up the image in portions.
Context is an important factor when trying to “read” and understand Fra Angelico’s art. A painting like Noli Me Tangere was intended for private contemplation within the confines of the dormitory cell. A monk would have lived with the image and had time — day and night — to consider its meaning.
The frescoes in the cells of the novitiate or beginner monks appeared at the opening stage of a friar’s devotional life, in his passage from novice to cleric. Many of these dormitory cells contain images of Saint Dominic, the founder of the Order of Friars, in various poses of devotion at the foot of the cross.
The frescoes in the cells of the more experienced clerics have a different feel, with increased sophistication in formal and narrative design. The novitiate frescoes may therefore be interpreted as preliminary instruction to the friars, a way of shaping them into the corporate identity of the Order, and the later cell frescoes designed for more mature and individualistic contemplation.
The Noli me Tangere image was painted in a cell belonging to an intermediate monk. The predominant theme of these later frescoes is the depiction of a sacred event to which a witness stands in proximity. The intention of all these images was to stimulate contemplation on the life and deeds of Christ, whereby the monk could perhaps place themselves in the role of the witness.
So, with a painting like Noli me Tangere, Fra Angelico created imagery that met the spiritual and intellectual needs of the friars at their different levels of theological training, and provided a model of contemplative prayer that would aid them in their spiritual imaginations, whilst at the same time securing a sense of collective unity within the Order.
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