Biblical Analyses of Johannine Art
by students of Felix Just, S.J. - Fall 2001

Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18)
by William Etty (1787-1849)
analyzed by Nancy Sampson

Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection
oil on canvas, first exhibited 1834; by William Etty, British, 1787-1849

Tate Collections, The National Gallery of British Art
[click on the image for a larger version on the Tate Gallery website]

The Artist

William Etty, who painted in the early part of the nineteenth century, was born and died in York, England.  The seventh child in a Methodist family of the working class, he inherited substantial money, enabling him to travel and study throughout Europe.  He loved to paint classical and biblical subjects.  Although a seeming paradox for Victorian England, he particularly focused on conveying the sensual qualities of the nude, yet stated that his intention was to "paint some great moral on the heart."   His style was realistic, and he "sought to achieve 'much  lustre, beauty and fleshiness.'"    In addition, "the rich, warm colouring of his work was modelled on that found in Venetian painting, while his method of composition derived from that of Rubens."   Etty was famous and financially successful with his genre, dying a wealthy bachelor.  To this day, the reputation of Victorian art is moderate.

Biblical Analysis

The scene accurately looks dark, as described in Jn  20:1; it is pre-dawn at the start of this pericope.  However, from vv.14-17(probably more specifically, vv.16-17)-which this piece highlights-can we assume that it is now light due to the passage of time in vv.1-13?  The landscape  looks like the arid Judean countryside. However, nowhere in chapter 20 do we read about a sleeping Roman soldier (cf. Mt) at the site of the tomb. In  20:11, Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. It is impossible to see if she is weeping in this work, but standing she is not.  The angels are in the correct position, one at the head and one at the foot where the body was laid as v.12 tells us.  In vv.11-14 it sounds as if Mary is standing the entire time, from weeping to talking to the angels.  She then turns around to confront Jesus, but John does not say that Mary is at any time kneeling or clasping her hands.  This apparently does not preclude most artists from assuming that vv.16-17 implying that Mary Magdalene fell to her knees.
It appears that the characters in this work are at the end of the conversation that begins in v.15.  Halfway through v.16 John states "she turned and said to him in Hebrew, 'Rabbouni!'"  Mary clearly has already turned around and seen Jesus, but here we see that she also dropped to her knees as she recognized Jesus. The piece captures v.17 when Jesus says "do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.  But go to my brothers and say to them."  By walking away from Mary and speaking over his shoulder, Jesus avoids Mary touching him, as he finishes telling Mary to go tell the disciples that he is ascending to the Father.

The spirit of the story is certainly captured in the mystical use of color to depict darkness.  From the standpoint of accuracy according to the Gospel of  John, this piece falls short.  Aside from the darkness and position of the two angels, every other detail does not exist in the Gospel of John. It is odd to see Jesus half-clothed in the cold of pre-dawn until we remember that this artist prefers to paint nudes.  Other artists portray Jesus half-clothed in many resurrection scenes as well.  The kneeling Mary Magdalene, also half-dressed, is a nice artistic touch to depict reverence for Jesus.

Synoptic Comparison

In Mark 16:1-8 Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb with two other women, bringing spices for the body of Jesus. (In the longer ending, however, only Mary Magdalene is present.) The sun had risen.  Only one angel is present.  He is the one who gives them the command.  In Mark 16:9-10, the women "briefly" told all that they heard from the angel to "those around Peter."  Where was Peter himself?  In John, Mary Magdalene is alone, and we are not told that she was going to anoint the body of Jesus. The sun had not risen, and Peter is present to the scene in vv.2-10.

Matthew 28:1-10 adds a lot more drama than John to the scene, with an earthquake, an angel with dazzling white clothing, and trembling guards.  Jesus meets Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" with the cheery salutation "greetings!"  In  John, v.15, Jesus confronts Mary Magdalene with two questions, "woman, why are you weeping?" and "whom are you looking for?"  The conversation is simply a quick order by Jesus in Matthew, whereas in John, the dialogue goes back and forth twice.  Finally, although these two women clearly grabbed Jesus by his feet, he did not tell them not to touch him as Jesus does in Jn 20:17. Jesus tells the women not to be afraid, which John does not.

A whole troop of women goes to the tomb in Luke 24:1-12 with spices to anoint the body of Jesus, in contrast to just Mary Magdalene. It is early dawn, which connotes some darkness, a little later that in John.  Although there are two "men" (or angels?), dazzlingly dressed, they stand beside the women, not at either end of the place where the body had been as in John, and address the women with dramatic rhetoric.  They go and tell the disciples.  In John, the angels ask simply "woman, why are you weeping?" The women say nothing in reply in Luke, whereas Mary answers the angels in John with "they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him."  Only in Luke does Jesus first appear to the disciples (on the road to Emmaus) rather than to Mary Magdalene, with or without other women.


Mary Magdalene is the only first witness, to the first appearance of Jesus after his resurrection, in John and Mark; in Matthew, she is with other women when Jesus appears to them. Mary Magdalene is one of the women who brought spices and oils to the tomb in Mark (16:1) and Luke (24:1-12), and perhaps we can assume that is why she went to the tomb early in Matthew (28).  In Jn 19:40, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrapped the body of Jesus with "spices in linen cloths" the day of  his death and burial.

Mary Magdalene's trademark symbols in Christian art are long, flowing red hair and an unguent jar. In this piece, only the hair is obvious.

Depictions of this scene since the early medieval period have been called "noli me tangere," Latin for "do not touch me."

Sources (

Dictionary of Christian Art, by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (New York: Continuum, 1994).

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