Art - Taking a Look at Noli me Tangere by Titian
Updated: Feb 14, 2021
I love the "slow art" trend at the moment. I don't need an excuse to stand in front of a painting for a prolonged period of time (the huffing and puffing of people wanting to take a photograph normally bring me back to reality), so I'm totally on board.
But sadly, it might not come as a surprise that the average time people spend looking at an artwork in a gallery is under 10 seconds. Now we are all guilty of this, but isn't it such a shame? Visits to art galleries and museums are just a "tick off the list" for many people, and it really shouldn't be.
I'm the sort of person who likes to go in time and time again, only looking at a few paintings each visit, and that's why I'm so lucky that in London most places are free. I like to take a long, detailed look at art, and I recommend you do too. So next time you're in a gallery or museum have a think about some of the things which go through my head when looking at a painting - the subject matter, the colours, the technique, the shapes, the texture, symbolism, how it makes me feel and how it's meant to make me feel.
And for this blog post, I want you to join me in taking a long look at Titian's Noli me Tangere, "Do not touch me" in the National Gallery.
Christ has appeared to Mary Magdalene, she reaches out to check if it's really him, and he responds with the words noli me tangere. Christ had been crucified and Mary subsequently found his tomb to be empty. He had been resurrected.
At first she mistakes him for a gardener, and we see he holds a hoe in his hand, in other paintings of the same scene, he appears in full farmer attire, so even the viewer is often perplexed on what is being depicted. By leaning back away from her hand, not allowing her to touch him he's telling her that it's time to let go of me, my physical presence has left and I have risen up the heaven.
I love the way Jesus bends away from her touch, and he draws his white cloak in front of himself for further protection, but also his body curves round and over Mary, offering her some sought of protection it seems. The shape of his body almost mirrors the tree behind him, which carries on up into the sky, reminding us of his journey up to heaven. But also following the line of the tree down the painting, it follows into the shape of Mary, linking these two characters once again.
Mary almost crawls closer to him as her luscious red gown sprawls out behind her. Yet despite the unsymmetrical composition of the figures - one upright, in a bending curve, the other elongated, there's balance. I feel calm and settled when I look at this. I want to be quiet, I don't want there to be any movement around me or in the painting, everything must remain perfectly still.
And Titian certainly knew what he was doing when he wanted the viewer to feel this way. The painting is in fact, split in the rough shape of a diagonal cross. If you follow the line of the trunk, it continues down the line of the body of Mary, dividing the painting in half. And if you follow the horizon on the right, with the buildings and follow the horizon in the mid ground, the body of Jesus is a continuation. So you see, the painting is indeed perfectly balanced, it doesn't feel so natural now does it? But it's certainly very satisfying.
But those diagonal lines aren't diagonal lines, there's curves and a roundness to them, even the sheep on the left seem to be oval and chubby in shape. Again adding more of a natural, calming feel to the scene we see before us.
Now let's have a more closer look at some of the details...
One of my favourite details of the painting are the faces. Firstly looking at Jesus, this could quite easily be someone I would walk past in the street today. He looks down towards Mary, so serious, not sad as such, but maybe a sadness for Mary and how she's feeling? There's a sense of concern and empathy for her.
Whereas Mary is the complete opposite, look at the difference between the skin tones of these two figures. She's simply radiant, as a smile creeps across her face at the realisation of who she has encountered. Her eyes wide in anticipation.
Another area which I adore are the trees, Titian does know how to paint a good tree. Looking towards the right of the painting, look how the leaves nearest us have been lit up by the morning sunlight, making them come out towards us, whereas the rest recede back into the shadow.
He hasn't painted every single leaf, but it's certainly believable. This same technique would have been seen on the tree which stands tall above Jesus, but has sadly faded to a dull brown colour.
The little cluster of houses on the hilltop looks simply idyllic, I really feel I could jump into the painting and have a nose around the town.
Notice how the sunshine has just lit up the front of the building on the left, giving us the impression that the sun is just rising. It's as though the people who live here are just waking up, and they have no idea the significance of the event which has just taken place.
We can often get a bit carried away with looking for symbolism in art - trying to work out what everything means. We often get a bit obsessed searching for the meaning of paintings, what each object symbolises, and trying to get to the bottom of every decision the artist has made and the reasons behind it.
But I'm going to jump on that band wagon too, surely Titian didn't paint a tree prominently in the centre of the painting because it looks nice? Surely the sheep on the right have some significance as well?
Taking a looking at the tree first, this could be representing The Tree of Life, mentioned in the Book of Genesis or indeed the Tree of Knowledge - reminding us of the Original Sin with Adam, Eve and the apple. Jesus died for our sins upon a wooden cross could this also be representative of the tree of which that was made out of?
I also think the sheep must be there for some reason. It's interesting to note that the round shape of them echoes that of Mary. Could this be a way by which Titian is showing Jesus as a shepherd and Mary as one of his flock?
The houses on the hill and the northern Italian looking landscape bring this event into contemporary viewers time and in a place they recognise, so they can relate. The young man walking down the path with his dog merges everyday life with the miraculous.
When this was painted in the early 1500s, it was a focus for peoples thoughts and prays, something that brought solace and hope. And it seems fitting to mention that in 1941, when all the paintings from the National Gallery were stashed away for safe keeping in a Welsh slate mine, this particular painting was taken out and displayed on its own. Thousands of people came to see it, risking their lives to come into the centre of London during the Second World War. Perhaps they to, found coming to see it brought some comfort and consolidation, and I doubt very much they came into the gallery just to look at it for 10 seconds...
Heard in London