During Easter 2016 I published an article on Jesus as the gardener of our souls, featuring a roundup of Noli me tangere (“Touch me not”) paintings that portray the risen Christ as a literal gardener, including a fresco by Fra Angelico from the convent of San Marco in Florence.
I spent the spring semester of my junior year of college living in Florence and, while there, fell in love with Renaissance art, and in particular the paintings of Fra Angelico (ca. 1395–1455). Born Guido di Pietro, he took vows as a Dominican friar and, together with his assistants, painted two corridors and the forty-four cells in the newly built San Marco, where he lived. The convent is now a state museum and is one of my favorite sites in the city.
In 1990 art historian Georges Didi-Huberman published a monograph on Fra Angelico, spending considerable time on his Noli me tangere, especially its red flowers, which he reads as a figural displacement of Christ’s stigmata (nail wounds). (More on this below.) In the painting, he writes, Christ’s blood “soaks the earth and makes a new humanity grow there, a humanity in the imitation of Christ, a humanity redeemed from sin” (161). He notes how the floral imagery is echoed in the Annunciation in the hallway outside the cell, serving to visually connect these two stages of redemption: Christ’s “flowering,” or conception, in the womb of Mary and his flowering forth from the womb of the earth on Easter.
The figure of the Christ-flower was already a common one in the medieval West. For example, the great thirteenth-century theologian Albertus Magnus writes,
The Christ-flower [flos Christus] blossomed in the Nativity, as we read in Isaiah 11:1: “There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse.” It withered in the Passion, when there was no longer aspect or beauty. . . . It blossomed again at the Resurrection according to human nature, in the very place where it had withered. Thus it is said: “And my flesh blossomed anew” (Psalm 27:7). [De laudibus 12.4.2]
Fra Angelico furthered the development of this metaphor in visual form, picturing Christ’s blood (according to Didi-Huberman) as a fertilizing material, the agent of regeneration.
The following excerpt is taken from Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration* by Georges Didi-Huberman, translated from the French by Jane Marie Todd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), pages 19–22. I find some of the semiotics discourse to be abstruse, but I’ve highlighted a few standout ideas in boldface—ideas that have helped me to see Fra Angelico’s Noli me tangere (and the Resurrection!) with new eyes.
Angelico sprinkled little spots, deposited little splotches all over this “field” [of green]: more or less regular blotches, made of Saint John White [bianco di San Giovanni]—that is, the very material that constitutes the intonaco of the pigment—and, on top of that, red. It is a bright color, a terra rossa, and it forms a slight relief from the wall; the rhythmic effect, the pattern effect, is only that much stronger.
But what about this “field” in the economy of representation? And in particular, what exactly do these little spots of red pigment spread across the surface like stars represent? To what category of signs do they belong? A response suggests itself at first glance, a response relating to the obviousness of the storia and, consequently, to the overall mimetic, “realist” nature of the fresco: these little red blotches without a doubt represent flowers in the meadow. In [Charles Sanders] Peirce’s semiotic typology, these little red blotches would therefore be icons of flowers in a meadow. Peirce noted quite rightly, concerning this concept of the icon, the extent to which we have a tendency when contemplating a painting to forget the distinction between the present sign (in this case, the red blotches) and the absent reality (the flowers). We therefore need to go a bit further in our contemplation of the little blotches themselves.
We notice at this point that the colored patterns are absolutely not painted like flowers. They do not describe anything, do not suggest any distinguishing features: in these flowers, there are no calyxes, no corollas, no pistils, no stamens. They are colored blotches, no more and no less. And it would be completely absurd to invoke at this point some incompetence on Fra Angelico’s part in representing a flower with its pistil and stamens: he carried out the task perfectly well elsewhere, and moreover, he proved himself competent in the face of much greater mimetic difficulties. It would be just as pointless to imagine the painter “not having the time,” or the coat of paint drying too quickly. If Angelico had wanted to paint a flower like a flower, he would have done so; he would have applied himself. But that is precisely the point: he did not decide to do so. He was satisfied with laying on little circular “heaps” of terra rossa. Why? The response is not in absentia, in a meadow or a text, for example; it is in praesentia, on the fresco itself. For if we persist in wondering what the red blotches are painted like, we can give as our response only what we see: in all rigor, these red blotches are painted like—that is, exactly in the same manner as—Christ’s stigmata.
These red blotches are even painted the way Fra Angelico painted stigmata in general, Christ’s or Saint Francis’s, everywhere in San Marco: they are small circular inflections of the brush that deposits its thick pigment of terra rossa. And the evidence of such a relation is accentuated, specified, virtually demonstrated by the constellation effect Angelico actually bestowed on his little blotches: these flowers scattered across a green ground follow a trajectory that ends with a repetition of the same pictorial sign on Christ’s hand and foot.
Confronted with what amounts to a real displacement of the iconic sign, I can no longer affirm anything that has the minimal stability required for the notion of a motif: speaking in absolute terms, I can no longer say “it is” or “it is not” in a decisive way. There is a displacement of the iconic value and hence an equivocal representation. For example, I can very well affirm that Christ’s stigmata are, according to Fra Angelico, the flowers of his body. And I will have no difficulty, by the way, in finding a Thomist text to support an affirmation of this kind: for instance, the article in his Summa theologica that Aquinas devotes to the question of whether Christ’s risen body had or did not have scars. To the objector who maintained that stigmata are wounds, and hence a “corruption” and a “defect,” Aquinas responds yes, but those wounds, on Christ, possess a “special beauty” (specialis decor) which is Beauty itself, the (bleeding, of course) Beauty of the Virtue of Humility [Summa theologica 3a.54.4].
But I could just as easily affirm, confronted with Angelico’s fresco, that Christ is here represented in the emblematic act of “sowing” his stigmata in the garden of the earthly world, just before going to rejoin the right hand of his Father in heaven. The idea finds support, by the way, if we pay attention to the fact that, seven times in the fresco and especially next to the stigmata stricto sensu, the red “flowers” appear in groups of five, the symbolically very pregnant number of Christ’s wounds.
In short, in considering these little red blotches in terms of the how of their presence in the fresco, we are led to equivocate on the question of what they represent mimetically. The iconic character of these red signs moves to the background, submits to a logical aporia, while their nature as indexes, as blotches, as pure physical, colored traces, takes center stage. And their way of signifying—between the flower and the stigmata, creating the notion of a relation above all—no longer has anything to do with the way the story delivers its very recognizable meaning.
Finally, as if to definitively convince his meditative fellow friar that he was not merely recounting a too well-known anecdote from the Gospels, Fra Angelico placed a third type of sign at the level of the gaze, something that does not look like anything recognizable in a meadow or even in the story of the Noli me tangere: it is a symbol, three little bleeding crosses, placed between Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ. Here is something that does not “resemble” anything in the order of meadow reality, but nonetheless possesses an obvious memorative function, pointing toward a meditation on Christ’s Passion and the Trinity.
It is particularly important to note that Angelico’s fresco signifies a great deal beyond the conventional iconographical attributes of its story. The example of the little patterns of red in itself raises the possibility of a painter’s using pictorial signs that constitute, strictly speaking, signa translata, a term I will translate as “transit signs,” signs or operators of conversion. And these signs of conversion are not simply metaphors, because their material existence sets up a labile movement between signs of very different semiotic status—icons, indexes, and symbols. That is why such pictorial signs immediately prohibit any univocal relation of attribution—a word to be understood in its two senses, logical and iconological. Such signs have the value of displacement, movement, and association rather than definition, identification, or predication.
But that does not mean they have a lesser value. On the contrary: if there is a type of thinking characteristic of images, it is associative—translata—thinking, a thinking that structures itself by shifting. To represent flowers in a field, Fra Angelico chose to produce only stigmata, simple marks, red colored traces; but these traces, arranged in series, in some sense bridge the gap between two completely heterogeneous (but theologically articulable) orders of thought: a field in springtime on the one hand, and Christ’s body “decorated” with wounds, his stigmata, on the other. That is what, in all rigor, is called a practice of figurability. The image, incapable of—or rather oblivious to—strict logical thinking, draws from this obliviousness all its signifying force. It is only a matter of seeing in Angelico’s fresco how a single material element—that famous terra rossa color—can function on the whole surface of the work as the privileged operator of displacements and structurers of meaning: this red speaks to us of sin in Mary Magdalene’s robe, but it is also, across from her, the very place of Christ’s suffering, the stigmata; it returns to Mary Magdalene in the converted form of compassion; it is disseminated as spring flowers, as an emblem of the Passion, but also of the Resurrection; it continually shifts between the flesh of man—since it is in general a stroke of that same red that outlines bodies in Angelico’s frescoes—and the glory of Christ’s risen flesh, the incarnate of his lips, the red cross of his halo. . . .
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