Noli Me Tangere means ‘Touch Me Not’ or ‘Don’t Touch Me’. This Latin phrase has such a poetic ring to it; the sound of its English translation is dull by comparison. It’s perfunctory; it’s bland; it’s arid: ‘Touch Me Not’.
‘Touch Me Not’ is functional too: it’s the vernacular name for a type of plant. The verdant fronds of the Mimosa Pudica closes up automatically in an act of self defence when touched. The compound leaves of this perennial herb close in on themselves when they feel violated. It’s Mother Nature’s signal to the perpetrator that the plant feels unsafe.
As a child, my favourite past time was to titillate the plant which spreads itself wildly among grassy patches and watch its fronds clamp up. Watching the leaves recoil and droop would give me immense pleasure. I didn’t understand that my action was causing the plant to react in self defence. There was power in my touch.
Noli Me Tangere
Noli Me Tangere
Noli Me Tangere
Which word in the phrase should I say shout out? Should ‘Noli’ stand out? How about ‘Me’? ‘Do I scream ‘Tangere’? The words on their own don’t mean much; ‘don’t’ is insipid; ‘touch’ conveys a sense of the tactile; ‘me’ is a personal objective pronoun.
But when strung together, ‘Noli Me Tangier’,‘Touch Me Not’ is empowering. With this phrase a woman marks a personal space between her body and her date. With this phrase, a man tells his drunk opponent to keep his distance. With this phrase, a child says ‘I’m not comfortable with what you’re doing to me; I feel unsafe.’
“Mama, touch me not!” screams Layla as her mother’s palm flies yet one more time across the six year old’s face.
“Daddy, don’t touch me!” Ruben screams at his father as the leather belt hits his ankles again.
“Papa, aiya! Noli Me Tangere!” Maria yells as her father yanks at her hair to make her stop crying.
‘Touch Me Not’ means ‘STOP’!
The image that inspired my ramblings was painted by a man named Fra Angelico. He painted it on a wall and this type of painting is called a fresco. I first saw this in Florence where it’s still well preserved on one of the walls in the Convent of San Marco.
Who was Fra Angelico?
Born Guido di Pietro, circa 1395, Fra Angelico was a monk of the Dominican Order. After his death in 1455, he became known as Fra Angelico because of his paintings. It was Fra Angelico, the ‘Angelic Painter’ who pioneered the trends in styles well known in the Early Renaissance: Stylistic trends like how pictorial spaces were handled and how the interplay of light and shadows created shapes with more volume made Fra Angelico a sought after artist.
He was commissioned by Dominican institutions to paint altarpieces and frescoes. These images were used as propaganda to advance the order’s missionary work. In the Early Renaissance, images known as icons were used as educational tools to promote Christianity to a largely illiterate population. Icons were images that acted as a conduit between the spiritual and earthly realm; such images were venerated and worshipped.
Artists who could translate Biblical narratives into images held important positions and were quickly noticed by the authorities. Cosimo de’ Medici commissioned Fra Angelico to paint frescoes in the newly renovated San Marco Convent in 1435. This was the cherry that topped the pie in Fra Angelico’s artistic career.
Fra Angelico died in Rome in 1455. He is buried in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.
Noli Me Tangere, John 20:17. Jesus said to Mary Magdalene “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father […]” when she found Jesus after his resurrection; she was the first person who saw Jesus when he rose from the dead.
It is unclear why Jesus said these words to Mary Magdalene. The English Standard Version Bible translates the Latin Noli Me Tangere to “Don’t Cling to me” while the King James Version uses the literal translation of “Touch me not”.
There are many scholarly readings for the reason behind his seemingly unkind words. It is important to take historical contexts into account. During Jesus’ time, there are ritualistic taboos in handling the dead and touching a dead body was prohibited. Another reason could be the position of women in Biblical times; it was not appropriate for women to touch a man.
The Bible can be read in many ways. Some take the Word literally while others understand the Word as a metaphor for a more multi-varied reading.
Noli Me Tangere has become an iconographic interpretation of the the Word/s. Fra Angelico was not the only artist who transcribed this narrative into imagery. At the British Museum, you can see another painting of the same theme by an unnamed artist (many icons were painted by unnamed artists). This icon produced in the 17th century is an hybrid icon. By that, it means that the icon combines Western and Eastern (Byzanitne) elements. Click here if you can’t make it to the British Museum to see the icon for yourself:
Image: Museo del Convento di San Marco, Noli Me Tangere, wall fresco, 1440 – 1442, Basilico di San Marco, Firenze. I found the image on Wikiart which is an online space that sells reproductions of images.
Reproductions of icons were produced all the time during the Renaissance but the images of the holy persons were considered to be the holy persons themselves and not reproductions of them.