Icon with the Noli me tangere2018-12-21T13:25:28+00:00

Icon with the Noli me tangere

Crete, 17th century
H.63cm; W. 47cm

Provenance: the icon was purchased in Crete in 1895 by Thomas Backhouse Sandwith (in some documents called Sandwich), who was the British consul in Chania from 1870-85. He was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1897. The icon was presented to the National Gallery, London, in 1924 by his daughter Mrs Charlotte C. Boys-Smith in memory of him. It was inventoried as NG 3961 and transferred to the British Museum in 1994.

Reg. no. BEP 1994,0501.3

(Cormack 28)

The icon is painted in egg tempera and oil with gold leaf on cypress wood, primed with gesso over cloth (linen?). It is a single wooden panel, strengthened with a pair of horizontal battens on the reverse. It is framed by a narrow orange-red painted band, now largely destroyed around the lower left corner. The main subject is the Noli me tangere, but other scenes from the first Easter morning are included. In a rocky landscape at the top left are the three crosses of Calvary, an Italianate building at the top centre, at the upper right are the myrrh-bearers with the angel at the sepulchre (Mark 16:1), at the left centre is Mary Magdalene at the sepulchre with two angels (John 20:13), and, below, the greeting of the myrrh-bearers; at the lower centre and right is the Noli me tangere: Christ stands at the right, haloed and elaborately dressed, holding a scroll in his left hand, and extending his right to the kneeling figure of Mary Magdalene. The wounds of the crucifixion are clearly visible on his body. On the ground between them is a golden urn containing the myrrh for Christ’s body.

The icon represents the appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection as described in the Gospel of John (20:15–17). The scene is known as Noli me tangere (‘Let no one touch me’), the Latin translation of his words. The other episodes from the Gospels complement the main event, and they are identified by Greek majuscule inscriptions in red and black.

The resurrected Christ is slightly drawn back and addresses Mary Magdalene, who is kneeling in front of him trying to touch him. Between them are inscriptions reproducing the (slightly abbreviated) Gospel dialogue: ΓΥΝΑΙ ΤΙ ΚΛΑΙΕΙC; ΤΙΝΑ ZHTEIC; (‘Woman why do you weep? Whom do you seek?’), to which she responds, taking him for the gardener: ΚΥΡΙΕ ΕΙ CΥ ΕΒΑCΤΑCΑC ΑΥΤΟΝ ΚΑΓω ΑΥΤΟΝ ΑΡω (‘Sir, if you have taken him from here, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away’). Christ then called her name, ΜΑΡΙΑ (‘Mary’), and she recognised him and exclaimed ΡΑΒΟΥΝΙ (‘Rabboni’, which is master in Hebrew), raising her arms. To this he replied: ΜΗ ΜΟΥ ΑΠΤΟΥ (‘Touch me not’).

The various scenes can be further identified as follows. To the left of the main episode is the ‘Chairete’ scene with Christ blessing the two Marys: his mother, crossing her arms in front of her chest, and the Magdalene, performing a full prostration. The scene is inscribed as: ΧΑΙΡΕ ΤωΝ ΜΥΡΟΦΟΡωΝ (‘Greeting of the myrrh-bearers’).

Above the ‘Chairete’ is the episode of the empty tomb which predates the appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene. As she approaches the burial site, holding the myrrh urn, she finds to her astonishment two angels sitting on the open sarcophagus (John 20:11–13). One is pointing at the shroud and cloth used for swathing Christ’s head, while the other is raising his right hand towards heaven. Two inscriptions accompany the scene, reproducing verbatim parts of the Gospel. One is to the left of Mary’s head: ΜΑΡΙΑ ΔΕ ΕΙCΤΗΚΕΙ ΠΡΟC Τω ΜΝΗΜΕΙω ΚΛΑΙΟΥCΑ ΕΞω (‘But Mary stood outside the sepulchre weeping’). The other is between the angels: ΚΑΙ ΛΕΓΟΥCΙΝ ΑΥΤΗ ΕΚΕΙΝΟΙ ΓΥΝΑΙ ΤΙ ΚΛΑΙΕΙC (‘And they say unto her, Woman, why do you weep?’).

A variation of the empty tomb episode, drawing from the Gospel of Mark (16:1–8), unfolds to the right of the upper part of the icon. In this case three myrrh-bearers, led by Mary Magdalene, are confronted by a single angel pointing at the tomb. Three inscriptions render passages from the Gospel. The first, a later addition, is on the gold background, above the three women: ΜΑΡΙΑ Η ΜΑΓΔΑΛΗΝΗ ΚΑΙ ΜΑΡΙΑ ΤΟΥ ΙΑΚωΒΟΥ ΚΑΙ CΑΛωΜΗ ΗΓΟΡΑCΑΝ ΑΡωΜΑΤΑ ΙΝΑ ΕΛΘΟΥCΑΙ ΑΛΕΙΨωCΙΝ AYTOΝ (‘Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him’). The second inscription is on the rock above the angel’s wing: ΜΗΝ ΕΚΘΑΜΒΕΙCΘΕ ΙΗCΟΥΝ ΖΗΤΕΙΤΕ ΤOΝ ΝΑΖΑΡΗΝΟΝ ΤΟΝ ΕCΤΑΥΡωΜΕΝΟΝ (‘Be not afraid: You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified’), while the third is over the sarcophagus: ΙΔΕ Ο ΤΟΠΟC ΟΠΟΥ ΕΘΗΚΑΝ ΑΥΤΟΝ (‘Behold the place where they laid him’). Christ’s empty sarcophagus before a rocky pit is represented for the third time between the two groups of buildings denoting Jerusalem.

As a preparation for painting the icon, the artist employed the process of applying a pricked cartoon for the outlines, which were further incised before the application of colours (Lymberopoulou, Harrison and Ambers 2011, 205–8). The composition reproduces faithfully an icon by the Cretan painter Michael Damaskenos (c. 1535–1592/3), which is now in the Collection of Ecclesiastical Art, St Catherine of the Sinaites, Herakleion, Crete (Borboudakis 1993, 457–8, no. 100; Drandaki 2009, 100–01, no. 37). This specific iconography of the subject, in particular the image of Christ, is probably a creation of Damaskenos but based on earlier works of Cretan painters. Among those earlier works are the double-zone icon from the Monastery of the Virgin Hodegetria Kainouriou, Crete, attributed to Angelos Akotantos (Borboudakis 1993, no. 94), the left wing of a triptych from the Benaki Museum, Athens (Drandaki 2009, 78–9, no. 25) and an icon from the Museum of Zakynthos (Acheimastou-Potamianou 1998). These works represent two versions of the event, resulting from following different Gospels. In the icon of Angelos, Christ appears to the two Marys, the Magdalene and the Virgin Mary (Matthew 28:1–9). This iconographic type is known as the ‘Chairete’ (χαίρετε, meaning ‘welcome’ in Greek) from the word used by Christ when addressing the women. In the Benaki panel he is conversing with Mary Magdalene only (John 20:15–17), and for this reason the scene has gained the Noli Me Tangere title.

The BM icon, following the model of Damaskenos, includes both types, though emphasizing the Noli me Tangere, which is depicted at larger scale in the foreground.

Of interest is the painter’s decision to portray different versions of the same event, revealing the Gospel narrative in reverse order. In doing so, not only does he give a fuller account of the events that followed Christ’s resurrection, but he also enhances the dramatic character of this visual storytelling. Furthermore, by rendering the ‘Touch Me Not’ scene at a much larger scale in the foreground, he emphasises the importance of penitence for the salvation of the soul. In golden garments reflecting the glory of his return, the resurrected Christ is first witnessed by the reformed sinner, Mary Magdalene. The icon of Michael Damaskenos portrays Peter and another disciple discovering the linen cloths in which Christ was wrapped, as described in the Gospel of John (20: 4–8). Both figures are absent in the BM panel. This constitutes the main iconographic difference between the two works, which are otherwise very similar. The absence of a ladder leaning against the central cross in the scene of Golgotha at the top left of the BM icon is possibly the result of wear as recent work has uncovered traces of paint in that area that could point to a ladder having been depicted originally (Lymberopoulou, Harrison and Ambers 2011, 191–2). Some discrepancies are found in the inscriptions of the icons (Lymberopoulou, Harrison and Ambers 2011, 192–4).

In iconographic terms the BM panel is characterized by a fusion of Byzantine and western elements, reflecting the social setting of Venetian Crete. The golden background and rendering of Christ, the Virgin and angels follow the Byzantine tradition. By contrast, the figure of Mary Magdalene with her uncovered head and long, wavy, light-coloured hair reproduces Renaissance prototypes, such as depictions of the same theme by Jacopo Bassano and Francesco Vecellio, while the twisted figure of the Magdalene at the sight of the two angels sitting on the empty sepulchre and the dramatic postures of the three women at the tomb recall Italian “mannerist” painting (Drandaki 2009, 100, no. 37) Further western influences are found on the myrrh urn in the lower foreground, decorated with nude figures, the background buildings, rich vegetation and the attempt to render the different scenes in perspective (Kalliga-Geroulanou 1962-3, 224). Additionally, the figure of the cross-legged angel appears to follow 16th-century Italian painting more closely than Byzantine works (Lymberopoulou, Harrison and Ambers 2011, 197–8). It is perhaps worth noting that, in the creation of this iconographic type of the ‘Touch Me Not’, the painter avoided using earlier Italian Gothic prototypes which are employed in the earlier and simpler versions of the subject among Cretan icons (Vokotopoulos 1990).

The style of the BM panel is in line with Cretan icon painting of the late 16th century and the art of Michael Damaskenos. The flesh is modelled with olive green for the shadows over which are pastel pink planes highlighted with fine white lines. The treatment of the drapery ranges from the more rigid geometric as in the figures of Christ and the angels to the softer naturalistic rendering of Mary Magdalene’s garments echoing Renaissance art. This is also the case with Damaskenos’ icon. The close iconographic and stylistic affinities between the two panels combined with the use of cypress wood, which is very common among Cretan icons (Lymberopoulou, Harrison and Ambers 2011, 195), point to the conclusion that the BM icon should be ascribed to a Cretan painter who was greatly influenced by the work of Damaskenos. Given the dating of the ‘Noli me Tangere’ panel by Damaskenos around 1590 (Kalliga-Geroulanou 1962–3, 223) the BM icon should be dated not long after this time (Lymberopoulou, Harrison and Ambers 2011, 202), possibly around 1600, also suggested when the icon was first exhibited (Chittenden and Seltman 1947).

Noli me Tangere ’ icons were very popular among Cretan painters until the 17th century, probably on account of the influential presence of the Franciscan orders on the island that were particularly devoted to Mary Magdalene (Drandaki 2009, no. 25). However, the complex iconographic type created by Michael Damaskenos appears not to have enjoyed as much popularity as the earlier and simpler variation limited to two figures (Kalliga-Geroulanou 1962–3, 225). In this BM panel, the painter has created a piece of high quality that is among the few known works to imitate closely a composition of Michael Damaskenos.

Literature: J. Chittenden and C. Seltman, Greek Art. A Commemorative Catalogue of an Exhibition Held in 1946 at the Royal Academy Burlington House London, London, 1947, 50, no. 356; A. Kalliga-Geroulanou, ‘Η σκηνή του «Μη μου άπτου», όπως εμφανίζεται σε βυζαντινά μνημεία και η μορφή που παίρνει στον 16ο αιώνα’, Δελτίον της Χριστιανικής Αρχαιολογικὴς Εταιρείας 3 (1962-3), 223–5; P.L. Vokotopoulos, Εικόνες της Κέρκυρας, Athens, 1990, 81, no. 54; M. Acheimastou-Potamianou, Icons of Zakynthos, Athens, 1998, no. 14; R. Cormack, Icons, London, 2007 (repr. 2014), 89, fig. 55; 91, 119, no. 28; A. Drandaki, The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete (exh. cat., Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA), Athens, 2009; A. Lymberopoulou, L. Harrison and J. Ambers, ‘The Noli Me Tangere Icon at the British Museum: Vision, Message and Reality’, in A. Lymberopoulou (ed.), Images of the Byzantine World, Farnham, 2011, 185–214.

Eleni Dimitriadou