104 – Don’t touch!

Fede Galizia, Noli mi tangere, 1616, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

Great news this week, which I know some of you will have heard already. But just in case you haven’t, I’m glad to let you know that the National Gallery has managed to completely re-schedule the Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition. And not only that, but they will be allowing it a full 3 ½ months, from 3 October – 24 January: click on her name for more information. To celebrate, I should really talk about one of her paintings – but instead, I’m going to suggest you look back to my earlier blogs about Judith and Holofernes (Picture Of The Day 17) or the Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (POTD 69). I thought this would be a good time to talk about another 17th Century woman, though: Fede Galizia. She too was supposed to have an exhibition dedicated to her work this year, but, after research through a number of contradictory websites, I’ve just emailed the Castello del Buonconsiglio in Trento and they got back to me 20 minutes later to say that it has been postponed until next summer. I’ll try and remember to remind you nearer the time! I’m still going to look at this painting, though!

I should have talked about this subject earlier, as it really is an ideal painting for lockdown (it turns out there are so many). The title, Noli mi tangere, translates as ‘Don’t touch me’, and even if we are not as locked down as we were, it still seems wise not to go around touching other people unnecessarily, particularly when you don’t initially know who they are. The story comes from John 20:13-17. It is Easter Sunday, and Mary Magdalene has gone to the tomb and found it empty. She tells Peter and John, who go straight to the empty tomb to see if Mary is talking sense, and, once they have reassured themselves that she was right, they return home. At this point, Mary, in tears as so often, looks back into the tomb to see two angels:

13 And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. 14 And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.15 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.16 Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. 17 Jesus saith unto 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.

I’ve always thought that ‘Don’t touch me’ was an unusual request, and somewhat understated under the circumstances, but the explanation, ‘for I am not yet ascended to my Father’ would seem to make sense. Jesus is in neither one place nor the other, and, as both God and Man, having triumphed over death, there must still have been an uncertain sense of transition. Nevertheless, a little further down the chapter – verse 25 to be precise – he does issue Thomas with the instruction, ‘Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side’. I’m sure this issue has been explored extensively by theologians, but I have not found a justification why Thomas could touch Jesus but Mary Magdalene could not – unless, within Jewish law at the time, the female touch was considered unclean. And, while we are on the edges of the potential misogyny involved, it is worthwhile noting that we are also at the centre of one of the most significant moments which is conveniently ignored by some members of the church: Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the Resurrection, and was instructed by Jesus, ‘…go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father…’. Not only did she see the resurrected Christ before anyone else, but she was also told by Jesus to tell the others what was going on. So I really don’t understand the objection to the ordination of women. Having said that, and despite the fact that this is painted by a woman, that’s not what this particular picture is about, of course.

We see Jesus standing on the right. Galizia gives us no explanation for Mary’s confusion – there is no hat, no hoe, nothing whatsoever which would suggest that Jesus could be a gardener, so why the mistake? We will have to assume that she was blinded by her tears. Jesus wears the shroud as a toga (as he does often at the Resurrection, POTD 25), his head glowing with sanctity around his beautiful and notably blonde hair. Both hands are held out towards the Magdalene so as to keep her at a distance, but also to display the wounds, which are also clearly visible in his chest and feet. Mary kneels beside him, richly dressed in a pink robe, with a white chemise underneath, and a golden-yellow brocaded cloak that is lined with a deep blue. Her hair – as blonde as Jesus’s but many times longer – is elaborately plaited around her head, and flows freely down her back and under her left arm. It is pointedly not covered: she shows every sign of being a well-to-do courtesan, and one who has not, as yet, entirely repented of the vanities of human life (POTD 100).

On the left we see the opening to the tomb, at roughly the same height as Jesus’s head – I’m sure this is deliberate, as it serves to emphasize that he has triumphed over the darkness within. Two cherubs stand within the sarcophagus, not exactly the ‘two angels in white’ one would imagine from John 20:12, nor are they still sitting. The one on the left appears to be kneeling in prayer, while his companion points towards Jesus – or to the stone which has been moved out of the way, perhaps. Above Jesus’s right hand we see a garden gate, reminiscent of the type that is depicted in Northern Renaissance images of the Garden of Gethsemane – you can just about see one in Riemenschneider’s relief on the right of the Holy Blood Altarpiece (POTD 22). Beyond that is Jerusalem. We are still ‘without a city wall’ (the far away ‘green hill’ is at the top right of the painting), and the city gate can be seen at the end of a curving road. Within the city are a couple of details which remind us that this was part of the Roman Empire – a column, like that of Trajan, topped by an indistinct golden statue, and a form of obelisk. There is also a large circular building, the Temple of Solomon, the image of which was derived from the Dome of the Rock, which, during the middle ages, people mistook for the Temple itself. On the far left we see some of the wonderful botanical details Galizia included, and I am indebted to the Ecologist for their correct identification.

They include an iris (Iris x germanica) at the top, with a great mullein, or Aaron’s rod (Verbascum thapsus) to the right of it, with a spike of yellow flowers, and large leaves below. Down to the left is lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) with its white, bell-like flowers, and the delicate blue flowers are perhaps spring squills (Scilla verna). In this detail we can also see the brilliance of Galizia’s depiction of fabrics, with the transparent veil around the Magdalene’s shoulders, the embroidered hem of the robe, and laced edging of the chemise, as well as a deep blue ribbon, matching the lining of her cloak, which is wound around the plaits in her hair.

Under Mary’s left elbow we see deep blue columbine, or aquilegia (Aquilegia vulgaris), and double hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) – notice how, colouristically, they are perfectly matched with the pink robe and deep blue lining.

At the very bottom of the painting are some snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) and what in all probability are buttercups (Ranunculus sp.) – the shape and colour of the flowers is certainly indicative, as is the shine on the petals. However, without the leaves it is impossible to tell which species of buttercup this is, and none of the leaves visible here would appear to belong to these flowers, anyway. Here too Galizia has been careful to match the colours – the buttercups are related not only to the rich brocade of the cloak, but also to the Magdalene’s signature jar of ointment, apparently ceramic with a slightly crazed glaze. According to Mark 16:1 and Luke 24:1 the holy women took spices to the tomb: it makes sense, therefore, that Mary has this jar with her.

There are some narcissi to the left of the Magdalene, just where the long strands of wavy hair seem to evaporate, and some anemones at the bottom left, under her toes. On the far right are some tulips of different colours, just below a pair of slightly sulky rabbits. Below Christ’s left foot, which is delicately poised on a stone, is a small piece of paper bearing Fede Galizia’s name, and the date – 1616.

It is not at all clear whether these flowers are symbolic or not. Some of them have appeared in paintings from the Renaissance onwards. The iris is related to the Virgin Mary’s suffering, while the buttercup has connections with sin. The columbine, its name deriving from a word for ‘dove’, is associated with the Holy Spirit. But some of them are just there for the ride – if Mary Magdalene mistook Jesus for the gardener, maybe this is the evidence. After all, several of these plants are not the wild varieties. The double hollyhock is definitely a cultivar, and the snapdragons are also a garden variety. Tulips were famously cultivated, and their bulbs would be traded at over-inflated prices in the Netherlands a few years after the Noli mi tangere was painted. They are certainly not all spring flowers, even if the narcissi, tulips and squills are.

It is the context of the garden which is most important, I think, and, added to that, perhaps, the fact that Fede Galizia was famed as a painter of Still Life. She had made it her speciality to paint things in intricate, naturalistic detail, and is not wasting an opportunity here. Like many other women artists, she had been trained by her father, Nunzio, who was born in Trento – which is why they will be hosting an exhibition. Fede herself was born in Milan, though, sometime around 1578. In 1590, when she must have been at least 12, though possibly a bit more, the artist and author Paolo Lomazzo, wrote his Idea of the Temple of Art, in which he said that ‘this girl dedicates herself to imitating the best exponents of our art’. As it happens, he was a friend of Nunzio, but this wasn’t just a favour for a friend – she clearly had talent and her career took off. She was much in demand as a portrait painter, perhaps as a result of her attention to detail, but also received several commissions from churches: today’s picture was painted for the High Altar of the Church of St Mary Magdalene in Milan, which was destroyed after the Napoleonic suppressions of 1798.

The flora in this painting works in a number of ways – some of the flowers definitely remind us of Spring, and so Easter, and refer to the Resurrection. Others have a more ‘generic’ religious relevance, referring to the Virgin’s suffering (a major part of which was seeing her son crucified), or to sin, as a result of which Christ’s sacrifice was necessary.  But how about the fauna? Well, rabbits, and their ability to reproduce, are associated with new life, and fecundity – but they also refer to the Resurrection.

Meanwhile, at the top of the painting, a pair of swallows are flying through the sky. They live with us throughout the Summer, but then disappear – only to come back in the Spring. It was thought that they lived in the mud during the winter (well, medieval observers couldn’t track their migrations), as if they were being buried and then coming back to life. Inevitably, therefore, they are also a symbol of the Resurrection. And, just in case we’d missed the point, at the top right of the painting we see that green hill far away, with two of the three crosses still visible and still standing. The reminder of Christ’s death is there, in the background, and it would be as well not to forget it. Although he is clearly once more in rude health, it would be wise not to get too close. Please remember that as you head back out into the world!

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

4 thoughts on “104 – Don’t touch!

  1. It’s good to have you back occasionally and this is a beautiful painting by yet another woman artist I hadn’t heard of. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I don’t know her work well, but want to try and get to the exhibition next year – I’m even going to suggest it to Nick and Charlie as a possible option for next September… it’d be great to get up into the Alto Adige, I think!


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