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  • Terry Glaspey

Lenten Journey with Art #8

Fra Angelico, Noli Me Tangere, c. 1440

The cross and the empty tomb.

These are the two key events around which the Christian message revolves. The Gospels tell the story of how Jesus was tried and convicted, mocked, crucified on a Roman cross between two thieves, died, was placed in a tomb provided by one of His followers, and then, three days later, rose from the dead. These are the bare outlines of the story, but it is a story that has transformed the lives of generations of believers, whose confession parallels that of the angel who guarded the tomb that Jesus had vacated: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; He has risen” (Luke 24:5-6). Over the years since this story was first told, artists have depicted these events in their paintings and frescos. They have tried to imagine what it might have been like to have been present at these sacred moments, or have used their imaginations to reflect on what the ongoing significance of these two earth-shaking events—which unfolded in a small and rather insignificant corner of the Roman Empire so many years ago—might mean for you and me today. Of course, theologians and biblical scholars have also wrestled with this same question. In this twelve-part blog series we’ve been exploring some of the beautiful and horrifying artistic masterpieces that explore the crucifixion and the resurrection. Art has a unique ability to help us see and envision these events in a fresh new way, so we’ve used some of this great art as a sort of “visual commentary” on the biblical text. These paintings can provide new angles from which to gain fresh perspectives and a deeper understanding of what transpired. I’ve found that pondering on these works can provide new insights and raise important new questions which help me more deeply connect with the sacred story of salvation recorded in God’s Word, as well as deepen my gratitude for what Jesus did on my behalf. I hope that these images and meditations might do the same for you during this Lenten season. This image comes from Fra Angelico, a nickname given to the painter by his fellow monks, which means “the angelic brother.” The sweetness of his temperament is evident in his gentle and lovely paintings, many of them originally created for the individual cells of his home monastery. Visiting this monastery, San Marco, was one of the highlights of my visit to Florence, Italy. The title of this work, Noli me tangere (touch me not), is from John 20:13, the words of Jesus to Mary when He had first come forth from the tomb. Notice that Jesus carries a spade, a reference to the fact that Mary at first mistook Him for the gardener. As He speaks these words, He moves away from her with an almost balletic gracefulness, traipsing through the flower-strewn garden. As He looks back there is no mistaking the emotion He feels toward her. It is a tender moment occurring in His transition between the human world of death and dying, and the divine realm of resurrected life.

Jesus is, in a sense, dancing on His own grave. And He invites us to the day when we can dance on ours.

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