A touching compassion: Dürer’s haptic theology

Shira Brisman (University of Wisconsin-Madison)


In one of the final scenes of his 1511 woodcut sequence, The Small Passion, Albrecht Dürer depicts the newly risen Christ extending his forefinger towards the head of Mary Magdalen. As a moment of touching, the Noli me tangere belongs to a category of representations that attests to the indexical nature of Christ’s image. The stain of his face on Veronica’s cloth or the imprints of his feet on the mountain from which he ascended are testaments to his corporeal presence on earth. Throughout The Small Passion, Dürer expands the vocabulary of indexical transfer to a haptic theology and proves the suitability of prints as a language in which to tell the story of God’s mark on earth in the form of Christ. Yet, at the same time, subtle underminings of these moments of contact signal Christ’s touch as impermanent, a substitute for a more sustained embrace to come. In emphasising the transmission and dissemination of Christ’s contact through a visual vocabulary of touching, pressing, hugging and kissing, Dürer also finds a language with which to describe the process of printing itself and the power – and limitations – of a medium both widely reproducible and constrained in its durability as a corporeal substitute.

Keywords: Dürer, prints, Small Passion, Noli me tangere, Mary Magdalen, indexicality, self-referentiality

Full text: OAJ_issue4_Brisman (PDF, 2 MB)

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5456/issn.2050-3679/2015w01 

Biographical note

Shira Brisman is assistant professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a PhD from Yale University in 2012, and taught as the Andrew W. Mellon fellow and lecturer at Columbia University. Her book, Albrecht Dürer and the Epistolary Mode of Address, is in press.