ONE of the most moving stories in the Gospels is the encounter of the risen
Christ with Mary Magdalene in the garden. This story, which appears only in the
Gospel of John, appears to indicate that Mary Magdalene was the first to see
the risen Lord.
However, this had theological difficulties. Would it not be more appropriate
for the risen Lord to appear first to his mother? That, at any rate, is the
natural tendency of both human feeling and religious devotion. Because of this
and the growing emphasis on the role of Mary, the Mother of Christ, Christians
in the East were reluctant to depict the appearance to Mary Magdalene. They
preferred to concentrate on the Chairete, where Mary Magdalene is one
of the group of two or more women who encounter the risen Lord as they come
away from the tomb.
Moreover, there was a tendency to depict one of these women as Mary, the
mother of the Lord. Depictions of Mary Magdalene on her own encountering Christ
tend to be the result of Western influence, as, for example, on the Crusader
façade of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
In the West, with the growing cult of Mary Magdalene, by Romanesque times
there was no inhibition about depicting this scene, and we have some superb
examples of it. This tradition, in which Mary is shown reaching out to Christ,
while he turns away in a gesture full of movement and meaning, found superb
expression in a fresco by Giotto (1267-1337) in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua
(shown, above). It is significant that the artist selected this scene to
illustrate, rather than the more traditional ones of the women finding the tomb
empty, or Christ appearing to Thomas.
This Noli me tangere has been called one of Giotto’s most powerful
images. On the left, the soldiers sleep, while above them the angels wait in
the tomb. On the right, in a scene of dramatic intensity, Mary Magdalene
reaches out to Christ with arms outstretched. He looks towards her, with his
right arm reaching out and his hand open, but his whole body is at the same
time turning away from her.
In this contrapposto, which has been defined as “leaning towards
her he also withdraws”, we have vivid artistic expression of the tension
between the love of Mary Magdalene for Christ and his love for her, and his
desire to lead her into deeper truths.
Mary Magdalene was a popular figure. The Golden Legend, written
between 1255 and 1266 and translated into French in the 14th century, which
became a popular book, puts forward five reasons why Christ should have
appeared first to Mary Magdalene. It says:
The first is that she ardently loves: Luke 7.47 “Many sins are forgiven her
because she hath loved much.” In addition, he wished to show that he died for
the sinners: Matthew 9.13 “For I am not come to call the just, but sinners.”
Thirdly, he wanted to show that whores would get into the Kingdom of Heaven,
rather than the wise: Matthew 21.31 “I say to you that the publicans and the
harlots shall go into the Kingdom of God before you.” Fourthly, as a woman was
the announcer of the death, so a woman should also be an announcer of life, as
the Glossa says. Fifthly, where sin has overflowed, so grace should be
overflowing. Such as we read in Romans 5.20.
These five reasons associate a number of stories in the Gospels with Mary
Magdalene in a way that modern biblical scholars regard as unfounded. But it is
easy to see how this combination of stories enhanced Mary Magdalene’s
The concept of contrapposto, or antithesis, was crucial in
Classical and Renaissance art. But, for Christians, it had more than aesthetic
significance. St Augustine quotes Paul: “As poor yet making rich, having
nothing yet possessing all things.” He concludes: “As, then, these oppositions
of contraries lend beauty to the language, so the beauty of the course of this
world is achieved by the opposition of contraries, arranged, as it were, by an
eloquence not of words but of things.”
In this figure of Christ, where all the forms of his figure are designed in
sustained opposition, we have tension between human love and divine desire. The
outstretched hand of Christ is typical in its ambiguity, for it is both
rejecting and blessing.
Questions for reflection
What words would you use to describe the message that the risen
Christ is conveying through the gesture of his hand and the posture of his
Reflect on the meaning of the words of Jesus in John 20.17.
This is an edited extract from The Passion in Art by
Richard Harries (Ashgate; 0-7546-5011-1)
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