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Noli me Tangere

Noli me Tangere

Master of the Codex of Saint Georges. The Bargello Museum – Florence. Around 1320.

Noli me Tangere

Antonio Allegri called Correggio (ca. 1489-1534). Museo Nacional del Prado – Madrid. 1534.

The theme of ‘Noli me Tangere’ comes from the Gospel of John. John tells that when Jesus showed himself after the Resurrection, it was first to Mary Magdalene. Jesus called her and she turned round and saw him. But Jesus did not want her to touch him. He said literally to her, “Do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to the brothers and tell them: I am ascending to my father and your Father, my God and your God.” G38 .

The theme has always remained somewhat mysterious because the words of Jesus are difficult to comprehend. Did Jesus not want Mary Magdalene to touch him because she had been a sinner or because any human could retain him from ascending to the heavens? We may have here also a central theme of love. When two persons touch in souls they are caught, cannot withdraw and stay together. Jesus may have given an allusion to this intimacy with humans and feared the effect. The ‘Noli me Tangere’ or ‘Touch me not’ is a symbol of the need for distance. This is the same feeling as expressed by Michelangelo in the ‘Creation of Adam’ in the Sistine chapel, where angels are seen to cling to God and draw him away, away from touching Adam. Michelangelo understood the duality of Jesus and thus of God very well and presented this to us in a genius’ way. God creating man and thus being involved in mankind, reaching out so as desiring to be part of his creation yet torn to remain the deity is a tragic cosmic theme. The ‘Noli me Tangere’ is a similar theme of longing and unfulfilment. There is no more tragic love and of course no greater love than of two beings unable to reach each other, since such a love eternally remains unblemished.

The ‘Noli me Tangere’ is a very old theme. Testimony to that is a diptych in the Bargello Museum of Florence that has on its left panel the scene with Mary Magdalene. The panels are in the Carrand room. Louis Carrand was a French antiques dealer who in 1888 left his private collection of Gothic and Renaissance objects to Florence on the express condition that it be shown in the Bargello. The panels that represent ‘Noli me Tangere’ and the ‘Coronation of the Virgin’ are attributed to an anonymous master called the ‘Master of the Codex of Saint Georges’. This was a painter and foremost illuminator of which the style was discovered in manuscripts made for the Popes of Avignon. He must have been a follower of Simone Martini, the most gifted Italian artist who worked for the Popes during their exile in Avignon. The panels date from the first half of the fourteenth century.

The panel of ‘Noli me Tangere’ shows the open tomb in the form of a rectangular sarcophagus, which reminds us of Jan Van Eyck’s picture. An angel is equally seated on the tomb. This panel is much older than Van Eyck’s picture though, so that we can surmise that the Van Eycks used symbols and presentations that were much older. They knew the traditions of earlier paintings. Around the tomb are the three sleeping guards holding their long, slender lances. The soldiers look like malicious devils hiding behind the tomb. To the right Mary Magdalene is knelt and she stretches imploring hands to Jesus. Jesus however, has a gesture of refusal and withholds her from touching him. The panel is richly decorated in a golden background and in the green grass grow white and golden flowers. Naively painted full lobed trees form the last decorative element of the picture. Mary Magdalene is dressed in the wonderful red cloak in which also Simone Martini showed her in his Orsini altarpiece, which he painted in Avignon at the court of the Popes. Jesus is enveloped in a bright blue cloak. He holds a banner with the white flag and red cross of his Resurrection. This panel does remind of illuminated manuscripts in its naïve depiction of the scene and the pure colouring. There is no perspective, no real sense of foreshortening and a very primitive sense of space in this picture. Later paintings of the theme depicted the same position of Mary Magdalene and the resurrected Christ.


Antonio Allegri called Correggio made a picture of ‘Noli me Tangere’ in the sixteenth century, so much later than the Bargello picture. Correggio was called after the village where he was born in 1489 and where he also died in 1534. The picture is one of his very last, painted approximately in the year the artist died. Correggio worked in Parma in the north of Italy, but his imagery possesses all the sweetness of Raphael’s pictures. He applied also the smoothness of Leonardo da Vinci and Leonardo’s way of having lines disappear in gentle colour shades, the ‘sfumato’. Much of this style can be discerned in Correggio’s ‘Noli me Tangere’.

Mary Magdalene has come at dawn so that a fresh yellow light rises over the horizon. She is dressed as an Italian noblewoman in a luxurious yellow robe. She has knelt before Jesus and looks at him in adoration. Jesus however does not want her to touch him. With one hand he retains Mary Magdalene, with the other arm he points to the sky. This gesture also was a very old theme in imagery of paintings that was frequently used by Florentine and Tuscan painters like Leonardo da Vinci. Often one can find it in John the Baptist, in scenes of the Madonna with Jesus and John. John then seems to indicate with one finger upwards that the true greatness comes from who ordained all the New Testament to happen, that is God the Father.

The painting is made in soft colours. The two predominant colours are Mary’s yellow robes and Jesus’s blue toga. These are two complementary colours, a feature that suits well the theme with its opposition between earth and spirit. We can point to the subjective use of colours here, which Correggio instinctively used. Jesus is in blue, a colour that creates a distance, a sense of movement away from the viewer. The golden yellow of Mary Magdalene attracts attention and is a warmer colour. In this same concept Jesus seems to move upward, whereas Mary Magdalene has knelt closer to earth. Correggio has used the diagonal of the frame to enhance the effect of Jesus’s élan to the sky. The diagonal goes over Mary Magdalene to the movement of the two arms of Jesus and the reclining tree that grows to the upper right corner then still enhances this line. This diagonal is a style technique of Baroque painting even though the line was used already by many painters before Correggio. Even Raphael for instance painted a ‘Holy Family with the Lamb’, also in the Prado Museum, in which this diagonal is followed as an evolution of the pyramid form of portraits and compositions of figures.

Correggio depicted Jesus as a noble youth, which is gently talking to Mary Magdalene. His features are noble and so is his half-nude body. The contrast between the pale colour of the chest of Jesus and the blue toga draws the attention to the Christ figure, whereas the rest of the picture is in darker or more subtle and subdued hues. The upper half of the frame is a delicate landscape with elaborate pictured trees, bushes and rock formations and blue mountains in the far. Correggio painted a superb, delicious picture that guides the eye of the viewer from Mary Magdalene on to Jesus, to the heavens. The picture is an invitation to the spiritual elevation of the mind.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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