She mistook him for the gardener

In his Gospel John records that on the Sunday morning following Jesus’s crucifixion, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and, finding it empty, started to weep, for she thought someone had taken the body. In her worry and frustration, she “turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus . . . supposing him to be the gardener” (John 20:14–15). It isn’t until he says her name that she recognizes him.

Artists—mainly from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—have latched onto this detail of mistaken identity, representing Jesus carrying gardening tools, like a shovel or a hoe, and sometimes sporting a floppy gardener’s hat. A few artists, such as Lavinia Fontana, Rembrandt, and the illuminators of the book of hours and passional shown below, have even shown Jesus in full-out gardener’s getup. (In her commentary on John, Dr. Jo-Ann A. Brant mentions that the fact that Jesus left his burial clothes in the tomb, coupled with Mary’s confusion, might provoke the “fanciful speculation” that Jesus actually borrowed the gardener’s clothes. Nevertheless, a different understanding is more likely behind the artistic representations; read on.)

Noli me tangere by Jacopo di Cione
Attributed to Jacopo di Cione (Italian, 1365–1398/1400), Noli me tangere, ca. 1368–70. Pinnacle panel from a Florentine altarpiece, now in the collection of the National Gallery, London.
Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene, from a Biblia Pauperum (typological picture book), ca. 1405, Netherlands. British Library, London.
Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico
Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395–1455), Noli me tangere, 1440–42. Fresco from the convent of San Marco, Florence, Italy.
Noli me tangere by Israhel van Meckenem
Israhel van Meckenem (German, ca. 1445–1503), Noli me tangere, 1460–1500. Engraving. British Museum, London.
Noli me tangere by Sandro Botticelli
Sandro Botticelli (Italian, 1445–1510), Noli me tangere, ca. 1484–91. Predella panel from an altarpiece from the convent of Sant’Elisabetta delle Convertite, Florence, Italy, in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Jesus as Gardener (Book of Hours)
Master of the Dark Eyes, “Christ Appears to St. Mary Magdalene as a Gardener,” from The Hours of the Eternal Wisdom: Lauds (KB, 76 G 9), fol. 88r, ca. 1490. Koninklijke Bibliotheek (National Library of the Netherlands), The Hague.
Jesus as Gardener (cca. 1503)
“Christ Appears to Mary Magdalene as a Gardener” (detail), ca. 1503–1504, England. Fol. 134v, Vaux Passional (Peniarth 482D), National Library of Wales.

Noli me tangere, Limoges enamel
Noli me tangere, 16th century, Limoges, France. Enamel plaque, 27 × 19 cm.
Noli me tangere by Albrecht Durer
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471–1528), Noli me tangere, 1511. Woodcut. British Museum, London.
Noli me tangere by Titian
Titian (Italian, ca. 1488–1576), Noli me tangere, ca. 1514. Oil on canvas, 110.5 × 91.9 cm. X-ray photographs show that Christ was originally painted wearing a gardener’s hat.
Noli me tangere by Hans Baldung
Hans Baldung (German, ca. 1484–1545), Christ as a Gardener, 1539. Oil on canvas, 110.1 × 84.1 cm. Hessen State Museum, Darmstadt, Germany.
Jesus as Gardener tapestry
Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene, 1540/45. Tapestry, 210.3 × 268 cm. Design attributed to Michiel Coxcie (Flemish, 1499–1592) or Giovanni Battista Lodi da Cremona (Italian, active 1540–1552). Woven in the workshop of Willem de Pannemaker (active 1515–ca. 1581). Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Noli me tangere (German)
Noli me tangere, ca. 1560–70, Germany. Ink and wash on paper.
Noli me tangere by Agnolo Bronzino
Agnolo Bronzino (Italian, 1503–1572), Noli me tangere, 1561. Oil on canvas, 291 × 195 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Noli me tangere by Lavinia Fontana
Lavinia Fontana (Italian, 1552–1614), Noli me tangere, 1581. Oil on canvas, 80 × 65.6 cm. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.
Noli me tangere by Rembrandt
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669), Noli me tangere, 1638. Oil on panel, 61 × 49 cm. Royal Collection Trust, London.
Noli me tangere by Edward Burne-Jones
Noli me tangere by Edward Burne-Jones (design) and William Morris (execution), 1874. Bottom right stained-glass panel of the Vanderpoel Window, Trinity Church, Saugerties, New York.

The portrayal of Jesus as a gardener isn’t meant to suggest that Jesus was literally gardening that day—though he might have been, and that’s amusing to think of. Rather, it alludes to his role as one who “plants” us and grows us. He gets his hands dirty in the soil of our hearts, bringing us to life and cultivating us with care so that we flourish.

According to Franco Mormando, whose research involves the religious sources of Renaissance and Baroque Catholic art, Jesus the gardener was a traditional theme of orthodox scriptural exegesis and popular preaching whose origins can be traced back to patristic times. In a 2009 article for America magazine, he writes,

Mary’s misidentification was meant to remind us, so the pre-modern exegetes taught, of a spiritual reality: Jesus is the gardener of the human soul, eradicating evil, noxious vegetation and planting, as St. Gregory the Great says, “the flourishing seeds of virtue.” Although today out of circulation, this teaching was disseminated [in the fourteenth through eighteenth centuries] in such popular, authoritative texts as Ludolph of Saxony’s Life of Christ (a book that played a crucial role in St. Ignatius Loyola’s conversion) and [starting in the seventeenth century] Jesuit Cornelius a Lapide’s Great Commentary on Scripture.

The Bible makes explicit the connection between God the Father and gardening. Genesis 2:8 tells us he was the world’s first gardener: “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.” The prophets sometimes wrote of God’s gardening in a metaphoric sense—for example, in Isaiah 61:11: “For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, / and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, / so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise / to sprout up before all the nations.” Or Jeremiah 24:6, in which God says of the exiles from Judah, “I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not pluck them up.” Furthermore, Jesus’s parable from John 15 casts God as a vinedresser.

John’s Gospel, though, goes even further to ascribe this role to Jesus, and to present his resurrection as the genesis of something new. For example, the prologue to his Gospel starts, “In the beginning . . . ,” an obvious echo of the prologue to Genesis. In 19:41 he mentions that Jesus was buried in a garden, and in chapter 20, that he was found walking around in it. He mentions twice that Jesus rose on “the first day” of the week, as if this were the first day of a new creation (cf. Genesis 1:35). And then he has Mary mistake Jesus for the gardener. When taken in concert with Paul’s conception of Jesus as the Second Adam (Romans 5:12–21; 1 Corinthians 15:21–22, 45), these allusions suggest that Jesus is the gardener of the new Eden, doing what Adam could not do. His resurrection broke ground in this garden, marking the beginning of a massive restoration project.

That’s why Jesus is so often found toting a shovel in the resurrection art of Renaissance and Baroque Europe. He is the caretaker of humanity, bending down to bring us up, to make us full and healthy and beautiful. Charles Spurgeon preached a sermon on the topic back in 1882, in which he declares,

Behold, the church is Christ’s Eden, watered by the river of life, and so fertilized that all manner of fruits are brought forth unto God; and he, our second Adam, walks in this spiritual Eden to dress it and to keep it; and so by a type we see that we are right in “supposing him to be the gardener.”

More recently, Andrew Hudgins—inspired by the imagination of visual artists—wrote a poem called “Christ as a Gardener.” You can read it in full here.

I’m curious to know whether any modern artists have exegeted John’s text in the same way—that is, portraying Jesus as a gardener in his appearance to Mary Magdalene. Besides a pen, brush, and chalk work by Anton Kern, done in a Baroque style, I am aware of only a few, the first of which is Graham Sutherland’s 1961 altarpiece in the St. Mary Magdalene Chapel of Chichester Cathedral. Commissioned by Walter Hussey, one of the twentieth century’s most important patrons of sacred art, Graham Sutherland painted two versions of Noli me tangere. Hussey chose the one that shows a door opening out into a garden and Christ wearing a sun hat made of straw, pictured below. (Click here to see a longer shot of the painting in its chapel context.) The alternate version is in the Pallant House Gallery, also in Chichester.

Noli me tangere by Graham Sutherland
Graham Sutherland (British, 1903–1980), Noli me tangere, 1961. Oil on canvas. St. Mary Magdalene Chapel, Chichester Cathedral, England.

Back in 2010 Jyoti Sahi posted an oil painting on his blog along with three others under the heading “The Resurrection.” I think the signature says 1987, but it’s hard to tell, as it’s cut off in the photo. In it Jesus carries an oversize scythe while Mary anoints his feet, just as she had done a week earlier, when she had shed tears in anticipation of his death (John 12:1–8). The outline around her is reminiscent of a kernel of wheat.

Resurrection by Jyoti Sahi
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), The Resurrection. Oil on canvas.

Most people associate scythe-wielding figures in art with the Grim Reaper—that is, Death—due to an iconography that stretches all the way back to the fourteenth century. But the Bible associates scythes with Jesus, the lord of the harvest (Matthew 3:12Matthew 13:2430; Revelation 14:14–20), the harvest being the end of the world. Only those who have rejected Jesus need fear his Second Coming, for those who have grown in his word will be gathered up into heaven. This painting in particular reminds me of Psalm 126:5: “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy”—a beautiful song of ascents that has been set to music by, among others, Bifrost Arts. Mary had wept penitently over her sin, and then later over the impending execution of her Lord, and still again at his grave, but now, because of his Resurrection, she enters into his presence with shouts of joy, and even more cause for worship.

Lastly, He Qi’s Do Not Hold On to Me from 2013 also references the Jesus-as-gardener metaphor, but because the head of the implement Jesus holds is in shadow, it’s not as obvious.

Noli me tangere by He Qi
He Qi (Chinese, 1950–), Do Not Hold On to Me, 2013. Oil on canvas.

Do you know of any artworks from recent times that take on this theme?

5 thoughts on “She mistook him for the gardener

  1. Very interesting. I’d never heard the typography of Christ as gardener of the New Creation (at least not in any way I can remember, and certainly not linking to Mary Magdalene’s mistaking him post-resurrection). As I was scrolling through the pictures, all I could think of was how silly Jesus looks wearing a floppy sun hat. But as soon as you introduce the typography, I think I appreciate it a lot more. I think one of the beautiful things about iconography is how there is the ability to depict things not necessarily as they appear, but as they actually are. One might say that Mary Magdalene indeed saw Christ as He truly is (even though she did not recognize Him), as the true Gardener.

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  2. Thank you for this article and the research you has been put to it. I am planning on reblogging it. I have to say though that Western Art’s depiction of Christ is too worldly in my opinion.

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  3. Thank you for the interesting article. I like Francesco de Mura’s version of “Noli Me Tangere” –Jesus is carrying a hoe and looks startlingly corporeal for one who is on the way to ascending; as in many representations of this scene, there’s an interesting tension between earth and heaven, between the earthly and the spiritual. I just saw an exhibit of de Mura’s work at the Chazen Gallery in Madison, WI, and I found a black-and-white representation online and this art poster of “Noli Me Tangere.” http://www.art.com/products/p22103777997-sa-i7498563/francesco-de-mura-noli-me-tangere-c-1750.htm?ac=true

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