"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
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
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
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
Meryl Doney is a freelance fine-art curator.