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Please do not touch

by
28 March 2013

The story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene at the resurrection, has been referred to as Noli me tangere, after the words of Jesus. Meryl Doney looks at the way in which artists have treated this moment

In the garden: a fresco in Florence by Fra Angelico, 1430;

In the garden: a fresco in Florence by Fra Angelico, 1430;

"MARY!" One word marks this most spine-tingling, world-changing moment. The words from John 20 are strikingly atmospheric: "Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed." It is a still point in history.

Mary had returned to the garden where they buried Jesus only the day before. She was shocked to see that the stone had been tampered with. She had rushed to tell the disciples, and they have been to the tomb, and gone.

Now, Mary was weeping. There was fear, but there may also have been hope, prompted by these mysterious circumstances. She saw the "gardener", and asked him what had happened. He spoke her name. In that charged moment, everything changed - for Mary, for the disciples, and, effectively, for us.

I can see Mary doing what anyone might do, flinging her arms around Jesus and holding on for dear life. He was alive. He was real! Everything he stood for had not ended with crucifixion. But Jesus resisted.

The response Jesus gave to Mary, translated from the Greek, is "Don't cling to me." But it is the Latin phrase Noli me tangere - "Do not touch me" - that has stuck.

This title, and this moment, have captured the imagination of artists down the centuries. Why does Jesus say "Don't touch me"? There is a kind of stand-off. Consequently, this, too, is a still point - almost a freeze-frame. Artists in almost every generation have wrestled with the story, its meaning, and how to depict it.

A SPANISH relief by an anonymous 11th-century artist, for instance, is all dramatic movement and swirling clothing. Mary is rushing towards Jesus. He shrinks away, and, in what looks to 21st-century eyes, makes a rather aggressive gesture. In fact, he is blessing Mary.

Fra Angelico, in the 15th century, covered the walls of his Dominican friary in Florence with frescos that depict scenes from the life of Christ. His Mary and Jesus seem almost serene in their beautiful garden setting. The moment of suspense is captured in the near meeting of their hands.

The German artist Albrecht Dürer is known for his draftsmanship and vivid detail. He shows the sun rising behind the newly risen Jesus. Dürer has taken the gardening reference literally: Jesus wears a peasant's hat, and carries a spade over his shoulder.

In the distance, three women are setting out, perhaps to bring spices to the tomb. Mary has her spice jar with her. She is reaches timidly towards Jesus's hand, which shows the mark of the nail.

In the 20th century, this subject is still very much with us. Graham Sutherland's Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene accentuated the division in the narrative, dividing the painting in two. Using red and green, he created two separate planes in which the two participants exist. Mary, her feet among the flowers, reaches up to touch Jesus. He is seen, physically, ascending a staircase. He points upwards: "I have not yet ascended to the Father."

The Scottish artist Ronald Rae's interpretation adopts a dramatic composition, using strong colour and line that is reminiscent of the style employed by the makers of graphic novels. The artist says that this is "a close-up of Christ's hands when Mary Magdalene confronted him on the day after his crucifixion." His hands, planted powerfully in the foreground, look as though they could be ward-ing off a blow. There is no sign of Mary.

Sam Taylor-Wood has made a series of works with biblical themes. Her link with the narratives is seldom obvious, but each repays some study. Her version of Noli me tangere depicts an almost naked athlete who seems to be supporting the weight of the ceiling, until we realise that the image is misleading. In fact, it is upside down. He is standing on his hands. After five minutes, his muscles start trembling, his body sweats, and he finally falls - upwards.

Meryl Doney is a freelance fine-art curator.

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