Sowing the stigmata: A reading of Fra Angelico’s Noli me tangere by Georges Didi-Huberman

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.

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.

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.

(Related: “Rosing from the Dead” by Paul J. Willis)

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.

Noli me tangere (detail) by Fra Angelico

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.

Noli me tangere details sketch
Detail sketches of Fra Angelico’s Noli me tangere, showing Christ’s dispersal of his stigmata. Source: Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration, p. 20

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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By the Mark (Artful Devotion)

You and I by Solomon Raj
P. Solomon Raj (Indian, 1921–), You and I, before 1993. Batik. Source: Living Flame and Springing Fountain (Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1993)

Then [Jesus] said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

—John 20:27–28

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SONG: “By the Mark” by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, on Revival (1996)

(Related post: “Thomas in the dark”)

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“St. Thomas the Apostle” by Malcolm Guite, from Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year

“We do not know . . . how can we know the way?”
Courageous master of the awkward question,
You spoke the words the others dared not say
And cut through their evasion and abstraction.
O doubting Thomas, father of my faith,
You put your finger on the nub of things:
We cannot love some disembodied wraith,
But flesh and blood must be our king of kings.
Your teaching is to touch, embrace, anoint,
Feel after him and find him in the flesh.
Because he loved your awkward counter-point,
The Word has heard and granted you your wish.
O place my hands with yours, help me divine
The wounded God whose wounds are healing mine.

[Click here to listen to a short sermon Guite preached on St. Thomas back in 2012, which opens with his reading of this poem.]


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Second Sunday of Easter, cycle B, click here.

Lent 2018 exhibitions, installations, and art trails

Besides the self-guided “Stations of the Cross” audio tour of the Smithsonian’s American art collection, here are some other opportunities to engage in person with visual art this Lent:

Crossings exhibition view
Hanging the “Crossings” exhibition at Southwell Minster. Pictured at left: Enzo Marra (British, 1975–), Observers Raphael (The Mond Crucifixion), 2018. Oil on board, 24 × 20 in. Photo courtesy of the cathedral.

“Crossings: Art and Christianity Now,” February 9–May 10, 2018, Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire, England: Featuring works in a variety of media by thirty-six contemporary artists, this major exhibition will unfold in two parts: “Crucifixion Now,” on view during Lent through March 21, and “Resurrection Now,” on view during Easter from April 1 to May 10. Each artist produced two new works, one for each phase, exploring the twin aspects of the gospel story: death and new life. Supporting events include music, lectures, workshops, and a conference on March 10, “The Spirit in Art Now.” Entry is free, and exhibition guides (with color photos and descriptions of all the artworks) are available for £5.

One outstanding work from the exhibition is a triptych by Sophie Hacker (artist previously featured here), formed from a variety of found materials, including cedarwood, Icelandic black sand, rusted metal, and metallic leafs. During Lent it will remain closed, showing a jagged cross “marked with stark wounds” against a background of soil and blood, but on Easter it will open, “giv[ing] way inside to rounded forms and lustrous colours, revealing all at once the stone rolled away, the cave filled with glory and the triumph of God in Trinity.”

Crucifixion Now by Sophie Hacker
Sophie Hacker (British), Triptych: Crucifixion Now, Resurrection Now, 2017. Mixed media, 32 × 24 in. (closed).
Resurrection Now by Sophie Hacker
Sophie Hacker (British), Triptych: Crucifixion Now, Resurrection Now, 2017. Mixed media, 32 × 48 in. (open).

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“Chichester Art Pilgrimage Trail,” Chichester, West Sussex, England: A twelfth-century Norman-Gothic structure filled with medieval, Victorian, and modern art, Chichester Cathedral is a beautiful blend of old and new. I’ve come across many of its modern art treasures before in essays and books—the tapestry by John Piper, Noli me tangere by Graham Sutherland, the Icon of the Divine Light altarpiece by Cecil Collins, and Marc Chagall’s Psalm 150 window. All these artists, commissioned by Walter Hussey (one of the twentieth century’s biggest champions of religious art), were giants in the field.

Psalm 150 window by Marc Chagall
Stained-glass window by Marc Chagall (Russian/French, 1887–1985), installed in Chichester Cathedral in 1978. Photo: Jonathan Evens.

These pieces and more are the subjects of an audio tour released this Lent on the Alight app. (If geography prevents you from walking the trail in person, travel it from your armchair, like me!) Starting at one of the three old Roman gates to the walled city, the trail runs via the “market cross” to the cathedral, with thirteen stops inside. Besides those listed above, they are the rare Anglo-Saxon Lazarus reliefs, the Arundel Tomb, the Lambert Barnard panels, the nineteenth-century south transept window, a St. Richard icon, The Baptism of Christ by Hans Feibusch, the Anglo-German Tapestry by Ursula Benker-Schirmer, The Refugee by Diana Brandenburger, and Five Wounds by Michael Clark. The latter two, pictured below, are new to me; in addition to learning more about them through the Alight commentary, you can also read a discussion group report (a debrief of visitor reactions) on the Bishop Otter Scholar’s blog.

The Refugee by Diana Brandenburger
Diana Brandenburger (British, 1932–2008), The Refugee, 2008. Bronze. Chichester Cathedral, West Sussex, England. Photo: Keith Gulliver.
Five Wounds by Michael Clark (detail)
Michael Clark (British, 1954–), Five Wounds (detail), 1994. Layers of glaze on five canvases, 2.2 × 2.2 in. each. Chichester Cathedral, West Sussex, England.

Clark’s piece comprises five tiny canvases built up with layers of jewel-like glaze and set into the cathedral’s walls—two at the west end (representing Christ’s foot wounds), one in each transept (hand wounds)—and high altar (side wound). The Rev. Canon Dr. Anthony Cane, chancellor at the cathedral, says,

When I see Michael Clark’s Wounds of Christ, they remind me that the imposing cathedral building would not exist without the particular flesh and blood of a human life, a life visibly marked by suffering. The five wounds are mapped onto the cruciform shape of the architecture, so that the very space I walk through becomes the body of Christ. Most artworks are looked at; this one is lived within.

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“Stations of the Cross” in New York City, February 14–April 1, 2018: After success with the “public art pilgrimage” model they used in London in Lent 2016 and then later in Washington, DC, Aaron Rosen and a team of other Christian theologians and art writers decided to organize a contemplative journey across Manhattan. Weaving through religious as well as secular spaces, from The Cloisters museum to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to the 9/11 Memorial, this trail aims to raise awareness of those in need of refuge through art. The same app that hosts the Chichester Art Pilgrimage also hosts this Stations tour, providing easy navigation through the city and audio commentary on each artwork. Participating artists come from different faith backgrounds, and programmed events include concerts, artist talks, panel discussions with local refugee organizations, and interfaith scripture readings related to hospitality and care for the stranger. The next event is Monday, February 26, at 7 p.m.: a free performance of Marcel Dupré’s Stations of the Cross organ suite at St. James’s Church.

Sacrifice/Embrace by Nicola Green
Nicola Green (British, 1972–), Sacrifice/Embrace, 2010. Silkscreen print, 152 × 102 cm (paper) / 64 × 64 cm (image). No. 6 of 7 from the series “In Seven Days.”

I found Nicola Green’s Sacrifice/Embrace silkscreen print, on view as station 7 at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, particularly engaging. Read or listen to Fr. Frank Sabatté’s reflection on the work on the Art 2018 page.

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“Through Light,” February 23–April 8, 2018, Patmos Art Center, Community of Jesus, Orleans, Massachusetts: In this two-person show of abstract sacred art, Italian Catholic artist Filippo Rossi and American Protestant artist Susan Kanaga, CJ, explore imagery of light. I’ve been to the ecumenical monastery on Cape Cod where this exhibition is being held and had the privilege of seeing both artists’ work there on the grounds. I don’t usually take to nonrepresentational paintings, but theirs drew me in richly. If you attend the exhibition, be sure to spend some time nearby inside the beautiful Church of the Transfiguration and Priory Books and Gifts. (Paraclete Press, whose catalog is full of books on the visual and literary arts and choral music recordings, is the publishing arm of the Community of Jesus.)

Kanaga-Rossi-01
LEFT: Filippo Rossi (Italian, 1970–), Reflections (detail), 2017. Acrylic, gold leaf, wax, and polystyrene, 220 × 120 cm. RIGHT: Susan Kanaga, CJ (American, 1954–), Joy, 2017. Acrylic, mixed media, gold leaf, and gold smalti on canvas, 20 × 20 cm.

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INSTALLATION: Doubt by Susie MacMurray, February 14–March 30, 2018, Southwark Cathedral, London: For the seventh year in a row, Southwark Cathedral has commissioned a contemporary art installation during the season of Lent. This year Susie MacMurray has created a large nest of black plastic netting suspended from the ceiling above the high altar, evoking a dark cloud; it’s called Doubt. The Very Rev. Andrew Nunn, dean of Southwark, says,

Popular imagination might expect faith to be lived out in bright clear sunshine, but from that moment when Moses climbed the holy mountain, shrouded in cloud, and experienced the presence of God, [darkness] has been a familiar experience and theme. . . . And as Jesus died on the cross the clouds brought night into day and the onlookers were plunged into darkness.

Doubt by Susie MacMurray
Susie MacMurray (British, 1959–), Doubt, 2018. Plastic netting. Southwark Cathedral, London.

An embodiment of the difficulties of faith, the cloud is nevertheless made of open mesh that allows some light to pass through. As sub dean Michael Rawson points out, “As you look at the cloud, above is a representation of Jesus in the stained-glass window, so Jesus is shining through that cloud of doubt.”

I like the concept but am unsure how I feel about its dominant placement in the sanctuary. I’ve only seen photos, but its presence seems oppressive, like it could impinge on worship. I’d be interested to hear how parishioners have responded.

To see more of MacMurray’s site-specific installations, click here.

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INSTALLATION: De profundis by Miguel Rothschild, St. Matthew’s Church, Berlin: Over eight meters long and suspended by 1,500 strands of fishing wire, the fabric installation De profundis by multimedia artist Miguel Rothschild mimics the texture of an ocean surface. Its title is the Latin incipit for Psalm 130, translated as “Out of the depths” (it’s a traditional Lenten practice to pray the penitential psalms):

De profundis by Miguel Rothschild
Miguel Rothschild (Argentinian, 1963–), De profundis, 2018. Print on fabric, fishing line, lead balls, 900 × 800 × 400 cm. St. Matthäus-Kirche, Berlin.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!
O LORD, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleas for mercy!

If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
O LORD, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
that you may be feared.

I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the LORD
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities.

Recalling the medieval German liturgical use of what’s known as a hungertuch (read more here), the fabric will cover the high altar until Easter. Water has many associations in the Bible, both positive and negative. Sometimes it signifies judgment, as in the story of Noah, or turbulent suffering, as in Psalm 42:7 (“Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.”). But God’s praiseworthy righteousness is also referred to as a “mighty flood” that crashes into our moral deserts (Amos 5:24), and the psalmist proclaims, “With you is the fountain of life” (Psalm 36:9). Rothschild’s installation, which looks like a rushing stream inundating the sanctuary, is a strong and multivalent visual—and I imagine it’s all the more so for those who live with it for weeks as worshipers in that space.

De profundis (detail) by Miguel Rothschild