Touch Me Not | From West to East

Touch Me Not (Mi mou áptou), Crete, 16th Century

"Touch Me Not" (Μη μου άπτου), Crete, 16th Century

The Icon “Touch Me Not” (in Greek: Μη μου άπτου, Mi mou áptou), shows the appearance of the Resurrected Christ to Mary Magdalene as described in the Gospel of John: “Jesus said 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.”(John 20:17)

Origins and History of the Icon…

Noli me tangere by Giotto (c. 1320)

Noli me tangere by Giotto (c. 1320)

Icons of this type first appear in Crete during the 15th and 16th centuries. Crete had been ruled by the Venetian Republic since the 13th century, and so it was natural that the Orthodox Christians living there would be exposed to the Roman Catholic influences of their rulers. The composition found in the Cretan icons can be found in earlier Italian religious art, such as Duccio (d.1318) and Giotto (d. 1337). The composition of this scene is further developed by Jacapo Bassano. These paintings are all usually given the name Noli me tangere, the translation used in Latin Bibles for mi mou áptou in John 20:17. Giotto’s version (left) is significant, because it gives an early example of Mary Magdalene with an uncovered head, which is how she appears in the first Cretan Icons of the 15th centuries.

It would be safe to say that showing female Saints with long flowing hair is not common in Orthodox iconography. The reasons are numerous:

  • Head-coverings for women are considered a sign of modesty in many cultures throughout history and even today. It is therefore appropriate to show St. Mary also wearing a head-covering
  • Related to the above point, St Mary Magdalene (and any other Jewish women described in the New Testament) would have worn a head-covering. Icons showing Mary or the other Myrrh-bearing women wearing head-coverings is at least historically accurate.
  • The Apostle Paul wrote of women in church: every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved (1 Cor 11:2-16). As icons of the Saints show them as they are in Heaven (note also the halo), it is therefore spiritually – as well as historically – accurate to show female Saints such as Mary Magdalene with head covered.
7th Century, St Catherine's Monastery, Sinai

7th Century, St Catherine's Monastery, Sinai

In the West there was a tendency toward mixing the Heavenly and carnal aspects in religious art, which began around the time of Giotto. During the Renaissance we see haloed Saints painted in an otherwise earthly and photo-realistic way, and depicting Mary Magdalene with her cowl thrown back, long hair flowing, reaching toward her Saviour is but one example of this. Whatever the reasons for its inclusion, the long flowing hair of Mary Magdalene in the Cretan “Touch Me Not” Icons is directly copied from Western art of the time, brought from Italy to Crete through Venetian influence. Compare Giotti or Bassano’s painting with a 7th century icon of Jesus Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene from St Catherine’s monastery on Mt Sinai (right).

The Venetians influenced the Greek iconographers of Crete, but the iconographers interpreted this influence through the lens of their own traditions to create the unique “Touch Me Not” icon. In the early 1600s, Heraklion, the capital of Crete, was home to 200 artists out of a total population of just 20,000. This high ratio of Greek painters ensured an explosion of Orthodox iconography during that period: the noli me tangere painting became the mi mou áptou Icon.

Cretan artists traveled widely, both east and west, and so the “Touch Me Not” image spread to other Orthodox communities. The Dionysiou Monastery on Mt Athos was rebuilt in 1547 after a fire destroyed the original buildings, the main frescoes in the church there being painted by a Cretan called Tzortis. And what is one of the frescoes found there?

Catholicon of Dionysiou Monastery, Mt Athos, 1540s

Catholicon of Dionysiou Monastery, Mt Athos, 1540s

The Western-inspired image persists in Cretan Orthodox icons, so much so that we get icons like the one shown below:

Mi mou áptou (Μη μου άπτου) by Michael Damascus (16th Century)

In it, Mary Magdalene is shown with head uncovered in the centre whilst around her are smaller scenes which show Mary with head covered in the traditional Orthodox manner! Clearly, the iconographer has borrowed older images of Mary Magdalene from Orthodox icons for the smaller scenes, and used the Italian influenced paintings of Mary Magdalene for the central scene. To the left of the icon there is a scene very reminiscent of the 7th century Mt Sinai Icon’s composition.

The icon does make it into Russia, where the icon type is called “The Appearance of the Saviour to Mary Magdalene” (Явление Спасителя Марии Магдалине), though it is uncommon. Here is one such example.

Modern versions of this icon, usually Greek, have attempted to “re-cover” Mary Magdalene’s head, as in this icon from the Metochion of Simonos Petras at the Convent Annunciation of the Theotokos in Ormylia, Chalkidiki (c. 1985):

Modern Icon of Mary Magdalene and Christ, from Chalkidiki

It is fitting that Mary Magdalene, honored with the title “Apostle-to-the-Apostles”, should be shown with head-covering, as with other female Orthodox Saints. Yet the strength of the Orthodox faith is not in its resistance to “outside” influence, but in its ability to measure all things against the canon of Truth, holding on to what is right and rejecting what is not. The icon of Mary Magdalene and Christ “Touch Me Not” came from the West, from a post-Schism Rome, yet so did a lot of things. Not all of them were eagerly embraced and held onto. The tradition of this image was one of the things that was. It is an image which has come into Orthodoxy and then been filtered through ancient Tradition, developing into a unique Orthodox Icon distinct from its Western prototype.

Μὴ μοῦ ἅπτου…

Seven foes have feared you;
Only I remain, who
Know nothing but love
And would love you,
Will love you—
If it were only you.

from ‘Do not touch me…’, by Timothy Jeffries Johnson

About Mary Magdalene (Orthodoxwiki article)

Kingdom of Candia (Crete under Venetian rule)

About Giotto the Italian artist

Jacopo Bassano, Venetian artist from 16th century who may have influenced Cretan icons of Mary meeting the Risen Christ

This entry was posted in History, Iconography, Icons of the Incarnation, Resurrection Icons and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Touch Me Not | From West to East

  1. Very interesting and helpful, but don’t forget, as we consider artistic traditions, that this was first and foremost a key resurrectional appearance in the Scriptures — which is neither West nor East, but inspired narrative of the incarnate, risen Christ. Absolutely true iconographic material. (of course, you know this, but it bears saying in this context. The sources, the sources!)

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