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Rem­brandt van Rijn, Dutch, 1606-1669

Noli Me Tangere, c. 1655-56 

As relat­ed in John’s gospel (20:1-18), Mary Mag­da­lene was the first to encounter Jesus after his res­ur­rec­tion, ini­tial­ly mis­tak­ing him for a gar­den­er. It was only after he said her name that she knew his true iden­ti­ty. He instruct­ed her, Touch me not, for I am not yet ascend­ed to my Father.”

Rem­brandt depicts Mary kneel­ing in def­er­ence, face down­ward, with arms and fin­gers extend­ed as Jesus bless­es her. Aston­ished, she has knocked over her oint­ment jar, a detail that relates both Mary’s human­i­ty in her blun­der and Jesus’s divine nature, since the con­tents are no longer need­ed for his bur­ial. With care­ful line work and a lim­it­ed use of wash, Rem­brandt cre­ates an emo­tion­al and inti­mate moment, demon­strat­ing his extra­or­di­nary abil­i­ty as a storyteller.

Otto Benesch summed up the pow­er­ful nature of this draw­ing when he stat­ed that it com­bines mon­u­men­tal­i­ty of inven­tion with utmost del­i­ca­cy of pre­sen­ta­tion.“1

Rem­brandt’s remark­able light­ness of touch, enhanced here by a slight fad­ing of the ink over time, inten­si­fies the sense of the super­nat­ur­al, espe­cial­ly the lumi­nos­i­ty cre­at­ed by the aure­ole around the head of Christ. Such a treat­ment accords well with the bib­li­cal account of the Pas­sion scene called Noli me tan­gere (Touch me not) from the Vul­gate Latin ver­sion of the story told in John 20:1 – 18. Mary Mag­da­lene was the first to encounter the res­ur­rect­ed Jesus after his Cru­ci­fix­ion. Hav­ing returned to his tomb, Mary wept at find­ing his body miss­ing. When Jesus appeared behind her and asked about the nature of her dis­tress, she at first mis­took him for a gar­den­er. It was only when he called her by name that his true iden­ti­ty became appar­ent. He then said to 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.” (John 20:17). Rem­brandt tend­ed to use the motif of the aure­ole in this and other draw­ings dur­ing nar­ra­tive moments when Christ’s divine aspect had just been revealed.2

In this case, Christ’s radi­ance even extends to the fig­ure of Mary Mag­da­lene, with one of the rays envelop­ing her fig­ure, indi­cat­ing spir­i­tu­al touch” despite the imper­mis­si­bil­i­ty of phys­i­cal contact.

This draw­ing relates to Rem­brandt’s hor­i­zon­tal-for­mat paint­ing of the sub­ject from the early 1650s, a some­what dark­ened and heav­i­ly restored can­vas in Braun­schweig Fig. 39.1.3

Rembrandt, The Risen Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene ("Noli me tangere")
Fig. 39.1

Rem­brandt, The Risen Christ Appear­ing to Mary Mag­da­lene (“Noli me tan­gere”), c. 1650 or slight­ly later. Oil on can­vas, 65 × 79 cm. Braun­schweig, Her­zog Anton Ulrich Muse­um, inv. no. 235.

It shows the two fig­ures on oppo­site sides of each other. Fur­ther dif­fer­ences include Christ’s flesh being fur­ther exposed in his shroud, and Mary Mag­da­lene look­ing up instead of low­er­ing her eyes. In the draw­ing, Mary has acci­den­tal­ly knocked over the jar of oint­ment (her attribute), a clever detail empha­siz­ing the dra­mat­ic moment of sur­prise or rev­e­la­tion cen­tral to many of Rem­brandt’s bib­li­cal sub­jects.4

One can also see her for­mer com­pan­ions walk­ing into the dis­tance at the right, miss­ing in the paint­ing. Rem­brandt imbued the Christ fig­ure in the paint­ing, how­ev­er, with a greater sense of con­trap­pos­to, hav­ing him lean more vis­i­bly away from Mary to empha­size the utter­ance of the words touch me not” in that very moment. His left hand pulls the shroud clos­er to his body as he leans away. In the draw­ing, his right arm is not vis­i­bly depict­ed against the shroud, and his avoid­ance of her touch (or poten­tial touch) is sub­tler. The rever­sal of the posi­tion of the fig­ures may have to do with Rem­brandt’s wish to show Christ bless­ing more prop­er­ly with his right hand in the paint­ing, there­by pulling away from Mary with his left hand against his body. If so, this would argue for the draw­ing hav­ing been made before the paint­ing. Nev­er­the­less, it does not appear to be a com­po­si­tion­al study, but rather a draw­ing of a type that Rem­brandt and his stu­dents would fre­quent­ly make in order to explore the nar­ra­tive poten­tial of a scene, whether or not they had a planned paint­ing in mind.5

Rem­brandt had already paint­ed the sub­ject over a decade ear­li­er in 1638, this time show­ing Christ as a gar­den­er (as well as depict­ing the two angels sit­ting on the tomb who were also men­tioned in the bib­li­cal text) Fig. 39.2.6

Rembrandt, Christ and St. Mary Magdalene at the Tomb
Fig. 39.2

Rem­brandt, Christ and St. Mary Mag­da­lene at the Tomb, 1638. Oil on panel, 61 × 50 cm. Lon­don, Royal Col­lec­tion, inv. no. RCIN 404816.

Two relat­ed draw­ings by Rem­brandt and Fer­di­nand Bol (1616 – 1680) also dis­play com­po­si­tion­al vari­a­tions, but like­wise prob­a­bly date to around the same time as this ear­li­er paint­ing.7

Rem­brandt’s depic­tion of Christ wear­ing a gar­den­er’s hat and hold­ing a shov­el con­forms more to the stan­dard iconog­ra­phy of the era, and he would have been famil­iar with pre­vi­ous ren­di­tions of the sub­ject, such as the prints by Albrecht Dürer and Lucas van Ley­den that he very like­ly had on hand in his own col­lec­tion.8

Whether Rem­brandt had a par­tic­u­lar visu­al source of inspi­ra­tion for this later ver­sion show­ing Christ in his bur­ial shroud, and with­out the appur­te­nances of a gar­den­er, remains uncer­tain.9

A con­tem­po­rary poem about the Braun­schweig paint­ing was writ­ten by his friend Jere­mias de Deck­er (1609 – 1666) and pub­lished in the Hol­lantsche Par­nas in 1660.10

De Deck­er devot­ed some of his vers­es to the emo­tions vis­i­ble on Mary Mag­dalene’s face: It seems as if Christ is say­ing: Mary, trem­ble not. / It is I. Death has no part of your Lord. / She, believ­ing this, but not being whol­ly con­vinced, / appears to vac­il­late between joy and grief, between fear and hope.“11

One obvi­ous dif­fer­ence between the paint­ing and the draw­ing is that we do not have the ben­e­fit of see­ing Mary’s face, bowed down instead in com­plete sup­pli­ca­tion. As George Keyes per­cep­tive­ly point­ed out, a poignant aspect of this scene cen­ters around the con­cept of ver­i­fi­ca­tion by sight. Mary was specif­i­cal­ly not allowed to touch Christ, unlike Thomas, who a short while later was per­mit­ted to put his fin­ger in Christ’s wound to assuage his doubts.12

Con­verse­ly, Mary’s faith in Christ’s Res­ur­rec­tion could only be achieved through sight. Rem­brandt was pos­si­bly play­ing on this exeget­i­cal aspect in the Peck draw­ing. Instead of reg­is­ter­ing sur­prise, desire, or dis­tress, she low­ers her eyes and spreads her hands in a grace­ful man­ner to sig­nal her com­plete and serene acceptance.

In his mono­graph on the tal­ent­ed but short-lived Rem­brandt pupil Willem Drost (1633 – 1659), Jonathan Bikker argued that the Peck draw­ing was actu­al­ly a work by Drost, since it relates close­ly to a paint­ing by him now in Kas­sel Fig. 39.3.13

Willem Drost, Noli me tangere
Fig. 39.3

Willem Drost, Noli me tan­gere, c. 1650 – 52. Oil on can­vas, 95.4 × 85.4 cm. Kas­sel, Gemälde­ga­lerie, inv. no. 261.

There are cer­tain­ly a num­ber of points of sim­i­lar­i­ty between the draw­ing and Drost’s paint­ing, both in the over­all com­po­si­tion and in cer­tain details such as the knocked over jar of oint­ment and Mary’s low­ered gaze, but these cor­re­spon­dences do not in them­selves argue for Drost’s author­ship. He almost cer­tain­ly would have encoun­tered this draw­ing in Rembrandt’s ate­lier dur­ing his years train­ing there, around 1648 – 52, and the inspi­ra­tion for his paint­ing could have eas­i­ly come direct­ly from Rem­brandt. Both Peter Schat­born and George Keyes right­ly con­sid­er the Peck draw­ing a work by Rem­brandt and reject the attri­bu­tion of this draw­ing to Drost on styl­is­tic grounds.14

Drost made his own draw­ing of the sub­ject, now in Copen­hagen Fig. 39.4.15

Willem Drost, Noli me tangere
Fig. 39.4

Willem Drost, Noli me tan­gere, c. 1650 – 52. Pen and brown ink with touch­es of white, 197 × 185 mm. Copen­hagen, Statens Muse­um for Kunst, Den Kon­gelige Kob­ber­stik­sam­ling, inv. no. kks 7049.

It not only reveals his com­pact and stiffer style, but also that it more like­ly served as the com­po­si­tion­al start­ing point for his relat­ed paint­ing in Kassel.

End Notes

  1. Benesch 1960, 158, no. 80.

  2. Roter­mund 1952, 102 – 04.

  3. Rem­brandt Cor­pus, vol. 5, 507 – 18, no. V 18; Rem­brandt Cor­pus, vol. 6, 338 – 39, 610 – 11, no. 219; and Van de Weter­ing 2017, 338 – 39, 610 – 11, no. 219 (sug­gest­ing 1650 as the most like­ly date of exe­cu­tion). The paint­ing is dated 165…, with the last digit illegible.

  4. See West­stei­jn 2008, 191 – 92, relat­ing Rembrandt’s prac­tice of show­ing sud­den recog­ni­tion to the ancient Greek lit­er­ary con­cept of anag­nori­sis (dis­cussed in Aris­totle’s Poetics).

  5. For the topic of Rem­brandt and his stu­dents work­ing out com­po­si­tion­al ideas in their draw­ings, see H. Bev­ers in Los Ange­les 2009 – 10, 21 – 22. In the lit­er­a­ture on Rem­brandt’s paint­ing, this draw­ing has also been deemed relat­ed” rather than prepara­to­ry; see, for exam­ple, Cor­pus, vol. 5, 515.

  6. Rem­brandt Cor­pus, vol. 3, 258 – 64, no. A 124; Rem­brandt Cor­pus, vol. 6, 252, 560 – 61, no. 158; and Van de Weter­ing 2017, 252, 560 – 61, no. 158.

  7. Rem­brandt, Christ Appears to Mary Mag­da­lene as a Gar­den­er, c. 1638 – 40 (Ams­ter­dam, Rijksmu­se­um, inv. no. RP- T-1961-80); Schat­born 1985, 50 – 51, no. 22; and Schat­born & Hin­ter­d­ing 2019, 77, no. D75. Fer­di­nand Bol, Christ Appears to Mary Mag­da­lene as a Gar­den­er, c. 1638 – 40 (Ams­ter­dam, Rijksmu­se­um, inv. no. RP-T-1930-29). For this pair of draw­ings, see also P. Schat­born in Los Ange­les 2009 – 10, 98 – 101, nos. 12.1 – 12.2; and idem in Ams­ter­dam 2017 – 18, 189.

  8. Schat­born 1985, 50.

  9. See the dis­cus­sion in Cor­pus, vol. 5, 516. An Ital­ian Renais­sance prece­dent that comes some­what close, show­ing Christ lean­ing away in his bur­ial shroud (though still hold­ing a gar­den­er’s hoe) is the paint­ing by Tit­ian from circa 1514 in the Nation­al Gallery, Lon­don (inv. no. NG270).

  10. De Raaf 1912; and Kless­mann 1988. The poem was ini­tial­ly thought to refer to Rembrandt’s 1638 paint­ing, but Kless­mann (op. cit.) con­vinc­ing­ly argued that it instead refers to the later paint­ing in Braun­schweig. For Rembrandt’s friend­ship with De Deck­er, whom he also paint­ed, see Ams­ter­dam 2019, 82 – 83.

  11. Trans­la­tion taken from Van de Weter­ing 2017, 610. For tran­scrip­tions of the com­plete poem, see De Raaf 1912, 6 – 7; and Cor­pus, vol. 5, 516.

  12. G. Keyes in Paris, Philadel­phia & Detroit 2011 – 12, 8 – 10. For fur­ther con­sid­er­a­tions of the Noli me tan­gere sub­ject in Rem­brandt’s oeu­vre, see Perlove & Sil­ver 2009, 308 – 11.

  13. Sumows­ki Paint­ings, vol. 1, 613, no. 316; and Bikker 2005, 61 – 65, no. 5. See Bikker 2005, 64 – 65, for the attri­bu­tion of the Peck draw­ing to Drost, where it is cited as a draw­ing for­mer­ly in the Lugt col­lec­tion, repeat­ing an error found in Benesch 1960, no. 80 (cor­rect­ed in a review of the same, Haverkamp-Bege­mann 1961, 25). The con­nec­tion between the Peck draw­ing and Drost’s paint­ing was first noted by J. R. Jud­son in Chica­go, Min­neapo­lis & Detroit 1969 – 70, 56, under no. 43.

  14. Schat­born & Hin­ter­d­ing 2019, no. D153; and G. Keyes in Paris, Philadel­phia & Detroit 2011 – 12, 27 (note 32).

  15. Sumows­ki Draw­ings, vol. 3, 1188 – 89, no. 547 x ; and Garff 1996, 38 – 39, no. 12. See also P. Schat­born in Los Ange­les 2009– 10, 197 (and fig. 35a), cit­ing this draw­ing as only one of two sheets that can be attrib­uted to Drost with cer­tain­ty; and D. de Witt in Ams­ter­dam 2015, 76. See also anoth­er draw­ing given to Drost of the same sub­ject in the Kupfer­stich-Kabi­nett, Dres­den (inv. no. C1369); Dit­trich & Ketelsen 2004, 154 – 55, no. 79.