Noli me Tangere, Chapel of Mary Magdalen, Lower Basilica of St Francis, Assisi, Italy.
Fresco, approximately 1320. Photograph by Ron Dullard.
BY ANGELA MCCARTHY
Over the past few years, part of my academic research has centred on the work of Giotto and the expression of the Gospel through his artworks.
One particular Gospel he has portrayed is John 20:11-18, describing the encounter between the risen Jesus and the weeping Mary Magdalene in the garden. She thinks he is the gardener until he calls her by name.
It has been a popular topic in Christian art and is mostly titled Noli me tangere – perhaps best translated as ‘Don’t cling to me’.
The richness of the symbolism of John’s resurrection account, coupled with the expressions from artists over the centuries gives rise to many theologies around the meaning of the resurrection and what it is to be called by the risen Christ.
The reason for the popularity of this particular scene in the middle ages was the development of the cult of the Magdalen.
This cult was powerfully developed by Dominican and Franciscan preachers who saw the Magdalen as the perfect penitent, and hence the many images of this particular scene in churches.
Mary Magdalen was not a penitent prostitute. This misconception possibly originates in Gregory the Great’s homily in 591 where he identified the unknown woman sinner in Luke’s gospel as Mary Magdalen. Hence the artworks that we have all identify her incorrectly as the penitent prostitute.
In Assisi (Italy), there is a chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalen in the lower Basilica of St Francis with a fresco of the post-resurrection scene.
I have tried in many ways to get photographs of this fresco – I have asked experts via the World Wide Web, have sent emissaries, have been there twice myself, have written to those in charge... what else can one do?
Monsignor Michael Keating, Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral in Perth, was going to visit Assisi with a pilgrimage group. I furnished Mons Michael with a letter from the University explaining the need for my research. I also included a letter describing the much desired photographs.
Mons Michael was told that only the librarian of the Franciscan monastery would be able to give such permission and he was not available until later. Mons Michael, and another member of the pilgrimage group bearing a camera, went into the lower basilica to find the Mary Magdalen chapel and then to speak with the monk who was manning the booth where one can ask for a Mass to be celebrated for a particular intention.
The monk in attendance turned out to be the only Danish monk in the monastery and he was thrilled and delighted to speak to Australians because Australia gave Denmark their beautiful Crown Princess Mary, the future queen!
Mons Michael took the opportunity to ask the monk for assistance with the much desired images and he was totally cooperative and took them down to the chapel himself. While Mons Michael chatted with the monk and kept security personnel at bay, Ron took the photos that I had requested!
With the poor lighting and curved walls it is very difficult to photograph but now I have the images I need.
Upon receiving those images, I immediately wrote to Princess Mary thanking her and a few weeks later I received an elegant card from the Chief of the Court of their Royal Highnesses The Crown Prince and Crown Princess of Denmark with the simple statement “Her Royal Highness The Crown Princess has asked me to thank you for your kind letter”.
It is wonderful how the Spirit works in this world!
Dr Angela McCarthy is a lecturer in Theology in the School of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame in Perth.
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