Noli Me Tangere, Fresco (1430), Fra Angelico (c.1387 – 1455)

Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Related post “Easter, April 8,2012′

In 1407, Guido di Pietro joined the Dominican order in Fiesole (near Florence, Italy) and at his vows took the name Giovanni. Thus, he was known as Friar Giovanni da Fiesole (Brother John of Fiesole). Vasari referred to him as Fra Giovanni Angelico (Brother John the Angelic one); now he is known simply as Fra Angelico. In Fra Angelico’s lifetime, Italy was in a state of transition. In the early part of the fifteenth century, medieval art was still a presence but Florence was at the heart of the Renaissance and Fra Angelico was aware fully of the trends toward humanism and the changes in art that were taking place.

In medieval art, figures are generally flat with little sense of individuality. They seem to exist in a mystic realm surrounded by gold leaf that shimmers as though reflecting heavenly light. Figures are not always anatomically correct in proportion and may be made larger or smaller according to a person’s status. During the Renaissance, the interest in humanism, an awareness of the world in which they lived, a better understanding of perspective, and the use of oil paints were factors that led artists toward the creation of paintings that were convincing effects of reality. Figures of a Modonna and Child no longer existed in another realm; they were given anatomically correct proportions and were presented as real people.

Fra Angelico’s life was devoted to the work of the church and one of his major undertakings was at the monastery at San Marcos in Florence where he and his assistants painted the cells (prayer and meditation rooms) with scenes from the life of Christ. Noli Me Tangere (“Don’t touch me”) is a fresco on the wall of one of the cells. The scene depicts Mary Magdalene just after she recognized the risen Christ. She is kneeling and reaching out toward him as Christ subtly gestures to her and steps aside.

There is pictorial depth in this fresco and the modeling creates an effect of solid figures under the draped clothing. Mary Magdalene’s kneeling position is believable as is the sense that Jesus has just moved his right foot as he withdraws slightly from Mary. Yet, although the figures are no longer painted as they would have been in medieval times, the tomb is quite stylized and tightly rendered. The landscape of springtime flowers and the backdrop of trees also are stylized.

Studies by perceptual psychologist Rudolph Arnheim have shown that viewers tend to “read” a painting from left to right. It also has been shown that from the standpoint of visual balance, we are more comfortable when there is more visual weight on the left side of a painting. Fra Angelico followed intuitively these compositional guidelines. If the painting, Noli Me Tangere, were to be divided in half (the background palm tree being the center) the larger and more passive visual mass on the left – the tomb and Mary Magdalene – is balanced by the more active figure of Christ on the right.

In Noli Me Tangere our eyes enter the painting on the left side at the tomb. We make a mental note of the darkness in the open door (this door is not designed to be closed by a large stone) and then we continue our visual journey to Mary Magdalene dressed in red, a color that also carries weight. The direction of Mary’s gaze, her arms, and her hand gesture lead our eyes to the figure of Jesus the focal point of the painting. In the figure of Jesus we find movement and we follow his gaze as it leads us back to the face of Mary. A fence in the background limits pictorial depth and keeps the focus of attention on the figures of Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the foreground. Although Noli Me Tangere seems to be a simple composition there is within the subtle gestures and facial expressions, a subtext that causes us to reflect on the moment this meeting occurred.

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© 2012 Hovak Najarian

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