A reproduction of Titian’s early work “Noli Me Tangere” (~1514) cannot do justice to its majestical prudence if contemplated directly on the walls of the National Gallery. To use the terms “majestical prudence” might be a bit of a misnomer, but at least it allows to be slide into what entails the central enigma of the picture: its underemphasized contours of the biblical encounter from John 20:15, in which the resurrected Christ appears to Mary Magdalene as a gardener. A lot has been made about the Giorginesque influence on the picture, but it seems to me that the underemphasized composition speaks to the real triumph of Titian’s masterpiece. This is a triumph achieved not so much through the imports of allegory and pagan motifs, but rather as a complex web of distances untangled in the picture: the distance between Christ’s gaze with Magdalene’s upward look, but also the solitary tree inclined leftward, which compensates for the downwards light jerk movement of Christ as he takes distance to escape touching.
I have said nothing of the deep and overpainted deep blue sea in the background; or the receding landscape in the distance with a flock of sheep, high grasesses, barns, and a modest castle to the upper right side of the picture. A little man walks his dog, and we guess he is moving towards the sheep. Or perhaps not. The underemphasized and inconspicuous composition of the picture is precisely in the formulation of distances; invisible distances that allows the gathering of proximity. Only in this minimalist case can the painting be described as giorgenesque. Herbert Cook in his monograph on Giorgione captures this balance by what he calls invisible threads: “Peculiar, however, to an artist of genius is the subtlety of composition, which is held together by invisible threads, for nowhere else, perhaps, has Giorgione shown a greater mastery of line.” . This is also a fair treatment of what holds up the elements in Titian’s picture.
Now, the invisible threads in “Noli me Tangere” do not merely substantiate the networks of lines; rather they also bring the picture to a point of a distant presence. This is what we are able to perceive when confronted with the painting in the walls of the National Gallery. There is another more straightforward way of stating the same: there is something “earthy” to Titian’s rendering of John 20:15, and by “earthy” we attempt to point to point at the distribution of distances between earth, sky, and landscape. This also implies how bodies move in it. It does not take much to document it: one could start by attending to Magdalene’s merciful arm raising to Christ’s cloaked body, followed by his holding of the hoe, which immediately swayes us to the tree. Magdalene’s left hand on an ointment vase reinstates the dowards movement to the ground. The earthly character is the tension elaborated by these distances – a very modern sensation that we will not get in the later pictures of resurrection in the glorious skies of redemption, as noted by Erwin Panoksky . The earthly deposes the relieves of both glory and incarnation. Titian wants to give us the picture of a resurrection in a world that passes by as it retains its tranquility, which painting can only provide us through a non-emphatic incorporation of its distancing.
This could very well account for the assumption that “Noli Me Tangere” becomes a decisive “stepping stone in the evolution of modern culture…from the Byzantine theology to Pantheism and spiritual freedom” . The fact that Renaissance painting was absorbent to the pagan myths is something that has been studied by the major art historians of the twentieth century, so one could also take Richter’s thesis somewhere else. Pantheism is not about the symbolic restitution of specific iconography or motifs, but it is rather the exposition of a particular experience: Jesus as gardener services the disclosure of an unmediated world granted by the perception of distances. The mistaken perception of Jesus as gardener can only be understood, even if momentarily, as undoing the work of Adam, only to be resumed and “served” (ābad) by the Savior . But this might be reading too much “meaning” into the picture, which is deliberately underemphasized in its avoidance to allegorical weight.
To any modern attentive observer, it becomes impossible not to bring into the picture the early modern dispute between gardeners and architects. This opposition does not justify Titian’s “Noli Me Tangere’”, but it does serve (at least it serves me) to insist on the open relation between gardening and the disclosing of an unmediated world, which stands as a theological idiom of the picture. It is most definitely a picture of a resurrected life that is only apprehended by the possibility of immersing itself in the rhythms of the invisible that pertain the world. So, we do not have to wait for the late mysterious and dark Titian to find a full coincidence between painting and thought. “Noli me Tangere ” seems to tell us that there is thought whenever there is earthy grounding in the bifurcation between bodies and things in space.
And so, we can return to the thin blue sea on the left side of the painting, which magically brings all the earthly elements to the forefront. It is the ultimate distance, as well as the unbreachable region where all elements converge (pay attention to the vegetation and the clouds literally becoming blue) sharply on the horizon. It is also the most emphatic instance of the picture; the lacunae that guarantees the masterful structure of invisible threads that ultimately pins its intimate proximity to natural dissolution.
1. Herbert Cook. Giorgione (George Bells & Sons, 1900), 41.
2. Erwin Panofsky. Problems in Titian: Mostly Iconographic (NYU Press, 1969), 40-41.
3. George M. Richter. “The problem of the Noli Me Tangere”, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, V.65, July 1934, 10.
4. Nicolas Wyatt. “When Adam Delved: The Meaning of Genesis III 2″, Vetus Testamentum, Vol.38, 1988, 121.