Rejecting and yet blessing

02 November 2006

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 popularity.

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 body?

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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