Interpreting Christian life and art through the ages
The University of Notre Dame Australia, Fremantle Campus
Theologian, Dr Angela McCarthy of The University of Notre Dame Australia, is using her life-long love of theology and art to delve deeper into the hidden mysteries of medieval Christian paintings and icons to uncover profound details about the artists’ lives, times and experiences.
With her current research focusing on a series of pictures entitled Noli Me Tangere, (broadly translated as ‘cease clinging to me’), based on the Gospel of John 20: 11-18, Dr McCarthy said she was inspired to explore the moment of Mary Magdalene’s meeting with Jesus.
“When Mary Magdalene meets Jesus she thinks he’s a gardener and she doesn’t realise who he is. It’s not until he turns to her and says, ‘Mary’ and she realises that it’s him,” said Dr McCarthy.
“I’m currently researching medieval artists, Giotto, Fra Angelico and Duccio di Buoninsegna’s interpretations and versions of that beautiful moment.”
Having travelled to Italy in 2009 to get a closer look at the artwork, Dr McCarthy said seeing the individual Noli Me Tangere pieces up-close and in-person was a magical experience.
“Giotto in the city of Padua is small but on a wall that’s completely covered in incredible paintings and it is mind-blowing,” she said.
“The one in Assisi covers the whole section of a ceiling in a chapel. In Sienna, Duccio’s are all tempera panels and that gives them a very particular sheen.”
Dr McCarthy said her research into the artworks involved the study of a number of aspects in context with the time in which they were produced.
“First of all, I start with the Gospel and work very closely with John 20:11-18. I’ve looked at what resurrection is, the theology of resurrection and what that has meant to us over time,” she said.
“Then I’ve looked at it in its original context when John wrote it and what was happening and why he was writing his Gospel.”
Dr McCarthy said a biased medieval-church perception of Mary Magdalene had contributed towards the quality of artworks depicting her at the time.
“I’m looking at the Gospel through the eyes of medieval artists who were informed by theologians of the time, so I have researched the theology of the church in these different periods,” she said.
“For example, in 1229, a hagiography (a tome depicting Saints lives) called The Golden Legend, was put together by Voragine, Archbishop of Milan, which was quite extensive.
“Giotto painting in that time period would have known about it, as it was a big part of their belief system, and this would have greatly influenced his work and interpretation of Mary Magdalene.”
Dr McCarthy said as times progressed and new ideas were brought to the fore, the subtle changes in artwork became evident, helping her to pinpoint the influences of the period when they were created.
“Some people within the church at the end of the thirteenth century were pushing for less of the formal theological idea in iconography and wanting to introduce more realism. Giotto was one of the first cabs off the rank in getting naturalism going,” she said.
“For instance, instead of the subjects’ bodies displaying rigid and formal positions, we’ve got bodily form and curves coming through.
“Duccio had a harder time with this because he was in Sienna and they were very fond of Byzantine art, so he had to try to use both old and new styles, which ended up being very successful. He maintained the tremendous gold splendour and things which were beautiful about the Byzantine style but he brought in this fabulous realism as well.
“Fra Angelico kept the simplicity and beautiful clarity that came from the Giotto form and didn’t allow it to be restrained.”
Dr McCarthy said she revelled in the opportunity to explore the views of the past and that it allowed her to engage in a deeply spiritual journey and meditation on the evolution of Christianity.
“For example, I think we’ve grown to be quite blasé about resurrection but we don’t really think about it as much these days. It’s not resuscitation, it is really something quite extraordinary and profound. It’s a cosmic event,” she said.
“It’s not something you can tie down to an easy human experience because nobody else has experienced it. It was so profound that it shifted the community of believers into such an extraordinary place that 2000 years later, there are two billion Christians.”
Andrea Barnard (+61) 8 9433 0610, Mob (+61) 0408 959 138
Barnard, Andrea, "Interpreting Christian life and art through the ages" (2010). Media Release Archive. 134.