Sunday, April 16, 2017

Noli me tangere

"Noli me tangere" is a phrase which has generated paintings across the centuries.

It's particularly relevant to Easter Sunday as the phrase is the Latin version of what Jesus Christ is supposed to have said to Mary Magdalene when she saw him after his resurrection (John 20: 14-18) - which is, of course, what Easter Sunday is supposed to be all about.

(This post is to counterbalance the Easter Bunny festival we seem to have these days!)

Scenes from the Passion of Christ by Hans Memling by Hans Memling
oil on panel
Galleria Sabauda, Turin
click the link to see the entire picture
'Noli me tangere' variously translates - depending on whether you are looking at
  • the Greek source - "cease holding on to me" or "stop clinging to me"
  • or Latin derivation "don't tread on me" or "don't touch me."
Below are images of the various paintings titled Noli me tangere - in chronological order, with details of who painted them. Paintings are sourced from Wikimedia Commons (link in the title). The location cited in the caption often links to the information page about the painting at the gallery, museum or church where it is now.

I find it fascinating how one single theme - and a phrase - can generate so many different interpretations by different artists over time - especially since the artists are like a roll call of the greats!

Below you can see the development of art by Giotto, Duccio, Fra Angelico, Memling, Botticelli, Dürer, Titian, Holbein, Poussin, Lorrain

No. 37 Scenes from the Life of Christ: 21. Resurrection (Noli me tangere) (1304-06) by Giotto di Bondone (1266/7 – 1337)
Fresco, 200 x 185 cm
Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua
Giotto completed a fresco cycle in The Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. The frescoes narrate events in the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ and cover all the walls.

There are various online images of the Giotto fresco relating to the resurrection (Noli me tangere) because of a recent full-scale restoration of all the frescos in the chapel (hence 'before' and 'after').

This 2015 blog post is worth a read The Scrovegni Chapel: My Moment with Giotto’s Masterpiece

Noli me tangere (Maestà de Sienne) (c.1308-11)
- by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319) 

Tempera and gold on wood, 51 x 57 cm
Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena
I'll never ever forget when I was introduced for the first time to The Maestà by Duccio di Buoninsegna in Sienna.  Several individual paintings make up an incredible impressive altarpiece which was installed in Siena Cathedral on 9 June 1311. The reverse comprises a combined cycle of the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Christ in a total of forty-three small scenes. This is one of those.

In this painting, the landscape plays a major part in emphasising the posture of Mary Magdalene.

Noli me tangere (c.1440-1442) by Fra Angelico (1395-1455)
Fresco, Height: 166 cm (65.4 in). Width: 125 cm (49.2 in)
San Marco, Florence
This fresco by Fra Angelico is in the former Dominican Friary of San Marco in Florence - now the Museo Nazionale di San Marco. The Museums of Florence website tells you more about it and the art it contains

One of the things which struck me while reviewing the painting is what a major part vegetation plays in many of the paintings - and the variations as to whether it was local to the painter or more associated with the Middle East.

Advent and Triumph of Christ (detail) 1480
by Hans Memling (1433-1494)

oil on oak, 31.89 inch wide x 74.41 inch high
Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Bavaria, Germany
I'm a big fan of Hans Memling (in terms of paintings I've personally seen) but am not very well acquainted with all his works. I had no idea he had painted the 'Passion of Christ' as a complete painting (see the painting at the top). In that the meeting between Christ and Mary Magdalene is tiny.

However, it's much better represented in the painting (see above) which tells the life and death of Christ - the Advent and Triumph of Christ (see below).

Advent and Triumph of Christ (1480) by Hans Memling
oil on oak, 81.3 × 189.2 cm (32 × 74.5 in)
Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Bavaria, Germany
Noli me tangere (c. 1484-1491) by Sandro Botticelli (1445 - 1510)
Tempera on panel, Height: 197.1 mm (7.76 in). Width: 440.44 mm (17.34 in)
Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Wikipedia version of this painting which says it's from Google Arts is outrageous. It's positively 'dayglo'. Hence the image above is from Google Arts.

This painting is located at the Philadelphia Museum of Arts but belongs with a painting in the Courtauld Institute.
Predella panel from an altarpiece from the convent of Sant'Elisabetta delle Convertite, Florence, the main panel of which is in the Courtauld Institute Galleries, London
The painting was originally painted on one continuous plank of wood, which formed the predella, or base, of an altarpiece.

Noli me tangere (1511) by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)
A number of the paintings which can be seen online have Christ wearing a hat and carrying a shovel. I'm not clear where this tradition comes from - but it's very evident in this woodcut by Albrecht Dürer

'Noli me tangere' (1514) by Titian (1488-1576)
oil on canvas, 110.5 x 91.9 cm
National Gallery, London
This painting by Titian arrived at the National Gallery in London following a bequest in the 19th century. The National Gallery webpage allows zoom facilities for looking more closely at this painting by a master painter. There is an analysis of the pigments used in the painting.
X-ray photographs show that Christ was originally painted wearing a gardener's hat and turning away from the Magdalen. The landscape was also drastically altered while the work was in progress.

Noli me tangere (c. 1526-28) by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543)
Oil on oak panel, 76.7 x 95.8 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external)
Royal Collection, Cumberland Art Gallery, Bedchamber, Hampton Court Palace
The Royal Collection has very many paintings by Hans Holbein - but this is the only religious painting in the Collection. It's thought it was originally painted for Queen Henrietta Maria, consort of Charles I, King of Great Britain (1609-69). It certainly used to hang in Charles II's Private Lodgings at Whitehall, as witnessed by John Evelyn, the diarist. It's probable that it was painted between 1526 and 1528 during Holbein’s first visit to England.
Underdrawing, revealed by infra-red reflectography, and x-radiography show the care with which Holbein planned the work.
Noli me tangere (1657) by Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665)
oil on canvas, 47 x 30cm
Museo del Prado
The painting by Nicholas Poussin in the Prado in Spain, was painted for Jean Pointel who was a French banker and silk merchant from Lyon. He was one of the greatest collectors of the paintings of Nicolas Poussin. However by 1746, it has found its way into the Spanish Royal Collection. It focuses on the figures with just a hint of the open tomb.

The Prado link to the painting provides an exceptionally large image.

Ostermorgan (Easter Morning)
Landscape with Christ, who appears to Mary Magdalena ("Noli me tangere") 1681

by Claud Lorrain (1604-1672)
Oil on canvas, 84.9 x 141.1 cmStädel Museum
I was very surprised to find that Claude Lorrain had painted "Noli me tangere". Unsurprisingly, most of the painting is a light-filled landscape! According to the Städel Museum, this painting was created in 1681 for the Roman Cardinal Fabrizio Spada. On the right of the painting you can see the other two Marys at the open tomb. You can find a detailed analysis of the painting in this extract from Claude Lorrain: The Enchanted Landscape on Google Books.

If you want to explore more of the very many paintings on a theme of Noli me tangere do take a look at this Wikimedia Commons page which has them ordered by centuries

I've rather enjoyed doing this chronological journey through paintings on one theme. I may do it again and not just because of a need tocounteract all those Easter bunnies!


  1. I enjoy with you. Yes, do others chronological subjects, please.
    Thank you very much.

  2. Katherine, thanks for an interesting set of pictures. The tradition of the gardener's hat and shovel alludes to the fact that Mary Magdalene, according to whichever gospel it was, was supposed to have mistaken Christ for a gardener. I have this interesting fact courtesy of Waldemar J and his interesting documentary on Mary Magdalene,

  3. There is also one by Graham Sutherland. It used to hang in Chichester Cathedral but I think it is now in the Pallant Art Gallery.


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