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Sunday, November 29, 2015

Mexican Murals. Ixmiquilpan: Noli me Tangere

San Miguel Ixmiquilpan in the state of Hidalgo is celebrated for its early colonial murals, principally the famous battle frieze along the nave of the church, whose colorful, Aztec inspired imagery has excited much comment.
   Less well known but also of the highest quality are the monochrome murals that line the church sacristy, formerly part of the adjacent convento. Devoted to murals depicting Christ’s Passion they are more conventional in iconography and style, based on Renaissance prints and similar to many other 16th century murals in the region.
   The actors portrayed in the various scenes in this long cycle are exceptionally expressive, with much background incident and landscape detail.  
In this post we focus on one of the most unusual and problematic of the frescoes, that of the Noli Me Tangere scene. This episode, recounted only in St. John’s Gospel, concerns the first appearance of the resurrected Christ, to St. Mary Magdalene:

"But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, 'Woman, why are you weeping?' She said to them, 'They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.' 
When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, 'Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?' Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, 'Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.' Jesus said to her, 'Mary!' She turned and said to him in Hebrew, 'Rabbouni!'  Jesus said to her, 'Do not touch me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, 'I have seen the Lord'."

This biblical subject was popular among prominent European painters, from Giotto and Fra Angelico to Titian and Michelangelo, and there were numerous graphic versions, notably from northern European printmakers. 
While clearly based on a graphic model, the precise source of this fresco is so far unidentified. The best known example and closest to the Ixmiquilpan fresco in composition is the 1510 engraving by Albrecht Dürer, part of his Small Passion series. 
   The most intriguing aspects of this mural, apart from its uncommon subject matter, are first of all the central figures, and second, the background details. 
There are significant differences from the Durer version, notably in the figure of Christ, who instead of holding out one hand in warning towards Mary Magdalene—the traditional and almost universal pictorial pose—here holds two garden implements, one in each hand, with no "warning off" gesture. Neither hand shows the stigmata.
   In addition, while kneeling, as was customary, Mary holds her hands in prayer instead of extending them towards Jesus. Both of these elements tend to deemphasize the critical moment of recognition and attempted personal contact, instead of dramatizing it as might be expected
   And Mary is shown without her usual jar of ointment, further depersonalizing her and downplaying the emotional power of the scene. A curiously detached portrayal.
The landscape surrounding the encounter is especially varied and detailed. Carefully drawn native plants dot the foreground and rabbits nibble contentedly on the left below the hill of Golgotha with three crosses and browsing animals. 
   A gridded field occupies the middle ground along with an unusual, structurally detailed tower, mounted on a high, square base and prominently accented in turquoise and rusty hues—probably a specific monument.  A church, a turreted city—presumably Jerusalem—and an aqueduct or bridge rise beyond.  
   As in other sacristy murals at Ixmiquilpan, rocky hills and outcroppings appear in the landscape, some clearly of local significance and possibly referring to Los Frailes, a distinctive topographical feature near neighboring Actopan.
text © 2015 Richard D. Perry. images © 1990 by the author

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