16 April 2012

Noli Me Tangere

My original plan with this article was going to be to discuss the disease Noli me tangere ("touch me not" or "don't touch me"). Noli me tangere is one of those medieval and Renaissance disease categories that probably included what modern medicine considers a few different diseases, definitely lupus exedens, a skin disease that you should not Google or click any links associated with unless you are really into looking at medical photographs of distressing conditions, and basal cell cancer (ditto).

The one very interesting thing I learned while researching Noli me tangere the disease is that one Renaissance cure for it involved macerating tobacco and applying the juice and leaves to the facial lesions. Anne Charlton, writing about "The Medicinal Uses of Tobacco in History" in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, notes that a page who was suffering from Noli me tangere cured his condition entirely by applying tobacco to it. (As a historical sidenote, that page was a member of Jean Nicot's household. Nicot was the French ambassador to Lisbon. He became such an enthusiast of tobacco's healing properties that people called the plant after him: it was called "the ambassador's herb" or nicotiane.)

Anyhow, that was all very interesting, but while searching for info on Noli me tangere I was reminded of  the iconographic tradition associated with the same phrase. This is something I came across during my grad school research but, like many other avenues of interest, I had no time to explore it thoroughly. So here we go. 

"Noli me tangere" as many of you probably know, is what Jesus Christ is supposed to have said to Mary Magdalene when she first meets him, post-resurrection, in John 20:11-18. She goes to the tomb to carry out the sombre task of embalming him, only to find that the body is missing. She (quite naturally, I think) breaks down and cries. Angels ask her, "Why do you cry?" A man asks her, "Why do you cry?" She says, "If you have taken him, bring him back." (I figure she imagines the grave has been robbed.) The man says her name. It's Jesus. 

He tells her "Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and [to] my God, and your God." (KJV) 

It seems to me quite natural that one would want to embrace a loved one who has returned from the grave, especially if they don't resemble a zombie.

"Give me some sugar."
Nicholas Poussin 1653

According to Barbara Baert, writing for Image and Narrative, "No other utterance by Christ has been the subject of as much discussion by the first Church Fathers as Noli me tangere." She notes that, via various complexities of translation, the phrase could mean "do not cling to me," "do not wish to touch me," or "you must let go of me." A massive exegetical (interpretive) tradition sprang up around the meaning of these words, as did an iconographic tradition named after the three words uttered by Christ. These images seem to position Mary Magdalene as desiring contact, and Christ as either repelling her or blessing her.

A lot of Noli me tangere artists gave Jesus karate hands
Hans Holbein the Younger, 1524

I find these images a little bit comical at times. At others, I think they seem to address the very profound and human aspects that surround living in this brutal physical existence, transcending it, achieving ascension as Christ did, and what happens to your friends and loved ones after you're gone, and (even more confusing) should you hang around for a while. That has got to be a head trip, you know?

Some Noli Christ figures are more standoffish than others
Alexander Ivanov 1835
I think the Noli me tangere art tradition also speaks to the fear of woman, the divine feminine, and of the flesh that took root in the Christian church. Mary Magdalene was the most important woman in Christ's discipleship. (And yeah, if you've read The Da Vinci Code, you know all about some of the theories around her.) Apocryphal texts, including Gnostic gospels, note that Mary Magdalene was more beloved of Jesus than any of his other disciples, and jealousy sprang up in them because of her. She was either Yoko Ono or Jesus's right-hand man, depending on who you read and whether you think a woman has potential as a powerful spiritual disciple and teacher or not. (Two guesses as to where I sit on this issue.)

Note the sign of the horns: heavy metal appropriated it, but it's a traditional warding gesture
1250 AD Source

I find the whole idea of a Noli me tangere iconic tradition fascinating. In the huge variety of postures in Noli me tangere art, you can see the artists' struggle to figure out exactly what the relationship was between Jesus and this woman who was both derided and exalted because of her position.

I've learned to use the two finger gesture to attack points in martial arts...
not sure what the intention is here
Spanish Noli Me Tangere, 1060-95
Further iterations:

I love that she also has a halo here.
Fra Bartolomeo 1506

Many images show Mary touching her heart centre.
Bartholomäus Spranger 1598
The labyrinth symbolizes a spiritual journey.
This is well worth viewing full-sized. Absolutely gorgeous.
Lambert Sustris 1515-20

A rare example of hands-on contact. Beautiful.
Alonso Cano 1640


Amanda Heitler said...

Fantastic post and right up my alley. The whole Noli Me Tangere discussion came up a lot during my Art History years. It was one of the examples I used for my final year dissertation about the development of female saints and their iconography because it has so many possible interpretations.

During the Savonarola era none of them were at all flattering to women, but later humanists were more interested in evolving female cult figures and the Magdalen has always been important for her frailty and accessibility.

Stopping now, but thanks for bringing all that back.

Luanne G. Smith said...

I'll admit my ignorance of this. Beautiful artwork though.

Fantasy Writer Guy said...

Awesome. When I see great art like this, it makes me wish I had hours to spend studying some of them. With all the time and talent that goes into a piece like these, you know that the artist is leaving nothing to chance. I trust that every element of facial expression and gesture means something; that there is an entire story being presented if only I had the persistence and imagination to decipher it, or die trying. Lovely post.

Elizabeth Twist said...

My favourite thing about writing these posts is comments like yours, by people who know way more about the area than I do, and that give me a clue about where to look next. I would love to know more about the evolution of these depictions. Thanks.

Elizabeth Twist said...

Isn't it just?

Elizabeth Twist said...

I love how specific and personal these depictions are. Each Mary Magdalene brings something different to the image; each Christ gestures or stands uniquely.

I think it's enough to simply enjoy and observe as best we can.

Amanda Heitler said...

You're welcome. I'll have a rummage and see what I can unearth if you like.

Elizabeth Twist said...

No pressure and no rush, but sure! If you don't have to rummage too hard. Even a recommended article or two would be great.

Sue Ann Bowling said...

"Noli me tangere"is probably a Latin translation of a Greek translation of what Jesus said in Aramaic, and 2nd or third hand even even before translation, so I suspect trying to figure out the meaning is head-banging. But I love the art.

Andrew Leon said...

Very interesting stuff. I don't remember ever wondering about this before. I mean, I suppose it just made sense to me that a guy who just came back from the dead would say "you can't touch this." (Sorry, I couldn't help myself.)

Elizabeth Twist said...

I'm no expert, but I understand your line-o-translation to be pretty much it.

I guess I see the exegetical efforts around this phrase to be aiming at the spiritual truth behind the statement. "Don't touch me," "Don't cling to me," "Let go of me," etc., all kind of point to the same action: the burning question is why he said that.

Elizabeth Twist said...

LOL Andrew, that's surely the best translation yet.

As a possibly (ir)relevant and freaky aside, I train in a couple of different meditation and healing traditions. An advanced practitioner who has a lot of "juice" can put his or her hands on you and open up all your channels. It is freaky. This is how I see what happened to Mary Magdalene the first time Jesus touched her, in her father's house. It turned her life around then. I can only imagine that a post-resurrection Christ might fry her completely.