Titian’s Touch: Noli Me Tangere (1511-12), Assunta (1520) and Self-portrait (c1560-62)

In his best-known self-portrait Titian's hand is on a tablecloth to emphasize it as his own attribute. Indeed one scholar has argued that Titian intentionally left his hand unfinished here to demonstrate a style that only the use of his fingers could create.1 She might have added that the tablecloth stands for both the tabula rasa (or empty surface of the artist’s mind) and a blank canvas, the two probably symbolising the start of a new conception.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Titian, Self-portrait (early 1550's), with detail. Oil on canvas. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

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Since Titian associated touch with the act of painting, the Noli Me Tangere had special meaning. It depicts the moment when Mary Magadalen tried to touch Christ’s resurrected body and He replied: ‘Touch me not’. As the first person to see (or imagine) the Risen Christ, her biblical role is like an artist’s. They each bring to life what others cannot see.  Mary thus becomes a perfect self-representation of the artist’s androgynous mind.  Besides, Titian unequivocally identified with Mary Magdalen in two important letters twenty years apart, in one of which she weeps on his behalf.2

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Captions for image(s) above:

Titian, Noli Me Tangere (1511-12) Oil on canvas. National Gallery, London.

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Mary’s shape, on her knees looking up, in the Noli Me Tangere is similar to Titian’s own here (left). This thus confirms her role as an artist painting a picture of Christ, just as Titian in this image, with his beard raised upwards, “paints” a picture of Christ's corpse. Titian emphasized Christ's figure as a work of art by making it resemble the one in Michelangelo’s Pieta.3 The similarity confirms, for other artists and viewers on the same wavelength, that Christ's figure, like Michelangelo's, is “his work-of-art”. Titian’s use of his beard as "a brush", both hairy, also brings to mind Michelangelo’s poetic comment that his own beard pointed heavenward as he painted the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.4

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Captions for image(s) above:

Titian, Pieta (c.1575) Oil on canvas. Accademia, Venice.

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Even in religious works the same pattern is repeated. The apostles in his first masterpiece, the Assunta in the Frari, are all representations of artists ‘painting’ the scene above. Most of their heads are raised in forms similar to those just mentioned, two beards extending outwards like brushes, hands stretching to ‘paint’ and fingers pointing. The late Rona Goffen even suggested that Titian had used his hands on this very painting. As evidence in support of our general theory, she also concluded in the same book that many of Titian's portraits of women were really, in one sense, portraits of himself.5

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Captions for image(s) above:

Titian, Assunta (1520) Oil on canvas. Frari, Venice.

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This enormous altarpiece depicts both the Assumption and the Coronation of the Virgin, an iconographically rare combination probably first suggested by Titian. He would have understood how this important commission could both “crown” him as the leading artist in Venice while making his reputation immortal. The government, laws and customs of Venice were structured to prevent displays of self-importance which this painting, behind the high altar of one of their most prominent churches, seems to undermine.6 It would appear that Titian took for granted that no-one but another great master would ever understand his meaning even though, in its most profound sense, self-identification with God is a humbling gesture to indicate the irrelevance of one's identity. (See The Inner Tradition.)

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Titian's Assunta

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I have discussed in Over The Shoulder Poses how artists would recognize a figure’s outstretched arm with the head turned towards the viewer as that of a painter in front of a canvas. Here that conclusion is extended, as it also was in Picasso's Two Nudes, to demonstrate that touch itself or a pointing finger, or even a brush-like beard raised upwards, all denote what conventional scholarship has never recognized: the act of an artist drawing or painting.

Notes:

1. Joanna Woods-Marsden, Renaissance Self-Portraiture (Yale University Press) 1998, pp. 162-3

2. Rona Goffen,  Titian’s Women (Yale University Press) 1997, p. 213

3. Erwin Panofsky, Problems in Titian: Mostly Iconographic (New York University Press) 1969, p. 26

4. Michelangelo Buonarroti, Rime, ed. E.N. Girardi, Bari, 1960, 5 cited in David Summers, Michelangelo and the Language of Art (Princeton University Press) 1981, p. 104

5. Goffen, ibid., pp. 8, 178, 185

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