In this Easter morning picture by Titian, the risen Christ appears to his grieving follower, Mary Magdalene, in the Garden of Gethsemane. At first she mistakes him for a gardener, but then, suddenly recognising him, she reaches out her hand in wonder. Jesus says, ‘Don’t cling to me’; he is telling her to let him go and await the Holy Spirit (John 20: 14–18).
The focus of the picture is on the interplay of gesture and gaze between Christ and his close female friend, Mary. I particularly love Jesus’ sinuous, twisting pose as he gently draws away from her outstretched hand while continuing to hold her in a loving gaze. The edge of his shroud visually defines the boundary that now exists between them, brought about by his death. However, the curve of Christ’s back extends into her earthly world, grazing the gable of the farm and the ruined castle beyond, while the edge of Mary’s dress runs up to the base of the slender tree, which shoots heavenwards.
According to the gospel accounts, Jesus would later that day invite his disciple, Thomas, to examine his wounds. So why does he withhold his body from Mary? Perhaps he knew that a bodily connection would not enable her own spiritual awakening. The crimson garment that flows down her back and pools on the ground tells us she is now ‘covered by his blood’, enabling her to enter a higher, non-physical relationship with her Master, by the Holy Spirit. Mary uses the jar of ointment, with which she intended to anoint his body, to bear her weight as she crouches in wonder before the risen Lord. In this way, she literally pivots on the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection; it is a profoundly bitter sweet moment of ‘metanoia’, or spiritual turning.
It seems timely to think about this picture in terms of social distancing. Enforced physical separation from our loved ones as a result of the pandemic is not what anyone would wish
for, and has affected us all in vastly different ways. As with Mary, the restrictions imposed on our wills may surface personal excesses and attachments and lead us to greater freedom. Whether we desire to reach out to, or draw back from others at this time, Titian’s poetry of line and landscape invites us to rejoice, with Mary, that Jesus knows us intimately and charts our individual paths to flourishing. And in the midst of so much loss, it reminds us that ‘a God we cannot touch is One we can never lose’(i).
Image Credit: ‘Noli Me Tangere’ (‘Touch Me Not’) by Titian, about 1514, National Gallery, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5444299
Note: Inspiration for this reflection was found in John Drury’s book, ‘Painting the Word: Christian Pictures and Their Meanings’
(I ) A quote by Neil MacGregor
This reflection was written by Tom Ingrey-Counter