Titian, ‘Noli me Tangere’, about 1514
After visiting Jesus’ tomb and finding it empty, Mary Magdalene comes across a man who she thinks at first is a gardener - the figure in the painting holds a hoe. On hearing him say her name, she realises that he is Jesus, and we see her kneeling on the ground in amazement. ‘Master,’ she exclaimed to which he replied ‘noli me tangere’ (let no one touch me) as told in the Gospels (John 20: 14–18).
Mary, dressed in a crimson gown, reaches out to touch Jesus but he turns away from her outstretched hand, clasping his burial shroud to him. Mary’s face shows wonder, surprise, and bewilderment at her discovery.
Christ appears wonderfully calm and gentle, twisting in a spiral motion away from Mary; the distance between their hands is tantalisingly close. Titian masterfully fuses the figures within the realistic landscape; the line of Mary’s back continues up the trunk of the tree, and the curve of Christ’s back is mirrored in the hill on the right.
This painting occupies a special place in our picture of the month series. During the Second World War the National Gallery’s Collection was evacuated to a slate mine in Manod in Wales for safekeeping. In 1942, after public pressure, it was decided that a single painting every month would be brought back to London and exhibited in the Gallery. ‘Noli me Tangere’ was the first to go on display.