Preview of my very exciting, upcoming book:

A Theory of Hands in Early Modern Art: The Semiotics of the Triune Gesture

         Hands played an important role in expressing metaphorical concepts during the Renaissance. While the sartorial aesthetic has had a long relationship with art history, divulging everything from social status to issues of gender and performativity, hands are rarely discussed in art historical discourse, despite how they are – aside from the head – often the only part of the human body to remain unclothed. As Nicholas Temple notes, hand gestures are important indicators in Renaissance painting. The right-hand gestures of Plato and Aristotle in Raphael’s School of Athens, are essential to understanding their respective philosophical principles.[1]As Frances Teague has argued, in theater during the Renaissance, hands could often act as a substitute for words.[2]By considering how hand gestures were used to communicate a Christian message about the Holy Trinity in different ways, this book explores the important role the hand played in bringing Renaissance esotericism into the mainstream.

Hand gestures can be used to denote direction. In the School of Athens, Plato points upward to indicate that his philosophy is concerned with God, the cosmos, and the afterlife, while Aristotle points down to show his pertained to earthly matters, and of being. Other hand gestures are more complicated. One, in particular, has defied understanding despite the fact that it appears in more Renaissance paintings than any other. Countless religious paintings from the period depict a person, or persons, in the act of holding their hand against their chest, their index finger separated from the middle and ring fingers, which are separated from the pinky to form a “w” or two “v”s. The gesture – which has also become known as the “El Greco gesture’ – was made famous by the Greek artist, who depicted it in over a dozen of his compositions. It appears conspicuously in his Nobleman with his Hand on his ChestMary Magdalene in Penitence, and Christ Carrying the Cross, among others (Fig. 1). While it may have become synonymous with El Greco, there is evidence of the gesture in painting much earlier, by an artist with whom El Greco was well acquainted.

Figure1.El Greco, Christ Carrying the Cross. c. 1585. Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Venetian artist, Titian, painted the gesture several times. It first appears in his Assumption of the Virgin(c. 1515), and later in his Polyptych of the Resurrectionand PenitentMary Magdalene. In the Assumption, the gesture is visible in Mary’s left hand, which is extended and raised toward God, who displays the same gesture with his right hand. In the center of the image below, a man reaches towards the Virgin with a similar gesture (Fig. 2). As Nicholaos Panagiotakes notes, there is evidence that El Greco was Titian’s student. Evidence of this can be found in iconographic and stylistic similarities between the two artists, but most importantly in a letter from Giulio Clovio to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese.[3]But the trail does not end here. The gesture is found in Michelangelo’s work, as well as that of his disciples. In Pontormo’s rendition of Michelangelo’s Noli me tangere, Mary Magdalene exhibits the gesture in her right hand, which is directed away from Christ. The gesture also appears most conspicuously with the figure of Christ in Michelangelo’s Last Judgementpainted for the Sistine Chapel (Fig. 3). In the fresco Christ is painted with bothhis hands holding the pose. While the gesture appears predominantly in religious paintings – only El Greco’s Nobleman with his Hand on his Chestis not overtly related to Christianity – it is also visible in works that indicate esotericism. 

Figure 2.Titian, Assumption of the Virgin. c. 1535. Oil on canvas, Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence.

Figure 3.Michelangelo, Last Judgement (Detail of Christ). c. 1512. Fresco, Sistine Chapel.


Paolo Veronese painted several images of mythological scenes that include the gesture. In his Allegory of Wisdom and Strengthhe painted a personified Wisdomstanding on a globe and looking up to the heavens. Beside her is Hercules, recognizable by his lion skin, who stares down the jewels that are strewn across the ground. The goddess’s left hand is held tight against her abdomen with the gesture (Fig. 4). In his Origin of the Milky Way, Tintoretto painted a mythological scene of how the galaxy was created by Hera, after her breast milk was sprayed across the heavens when she recoiled in pain while nursing Hercules. Her left hand reached out to the stars with the gesture (Fig. 5).

Figure 4.Paolo Veronese, Allegory of Wisdom and Strength. c. 1580. Oil on canvas. Frick Collection, New York.

Figure 5.Tintoretto, The Origin of the Milky Way. c. 1575. Oil on canvas. National Gallery, London.

During the period, the esoteric works by Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Johannes Reuchlin all looked to Christianity’s relationship with ancient religions to help understand its origins.[4]The assumption that humankind has access to ancient, divine wisdom led these Renaissance scholars to sift through these connections in their modern search for truth.[5]The Neo-Platonist worldview of Ficino and Pico included other traditions, such as the writings of Hermes Trismegistus, the Kabbalah, Pythagoras, but most importantly Plato. My research has shown that the gesture can be linked to the numerous texts produced by these writers, and others, whose main purpose was to defend the truth of the Holy Trinity. While scholars and humanists born in the climate of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth century are often considered the greatest protectors of the Holy Trinity, their antecedents will also be given due consideration, since one of the aims of this book is to provide an unadulterated account of the gesture as it arises in response to different epistemological changes. As will be argued, the gesture could be used for several purposes in art, by providing a Christian code that was initially only understood by the adept.

[1]Nicholas Temple, “Gesture and perspective in Raphael’s School of Athens,” in Renaissance Theories of Vision, eds. John Shannon Hendrix and Charles H. Carman, (New York: Routledge, 2016), 135-148, 139

[2]Frances Teague, “”What about Our Hands?”: A Presentational Image Cluster,” in Medieval And Renaissance Drama in England, Volume 16, edited by John Pitcher, (London: Associated University Presses, 2003), 218-227, (218).

[3]Nicholaos M. Panagiotakes, El Greco: The Cretan Years, translated by John C. Davis, (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009), 100.

[4]James Joseph Bono, The Word and Languages of Man: Interpreting Nature in Early Modern Science and Medicine. Volume 1, (Milwaukee: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), 125. 


Masks, Mirrors, and Other Covid-19 Paraphernalia

The last time I communicated with family doctor was in mid-March.  He was in Texas when lockdowns were just beginning across North America, and was anxious to get on a plane home. Weeks later I would learn that he had contracted the disease, and was on a respirator in a Vancouver hospital, fighting for his life. Of all patients with Covid-19, Dr. Gregory Phillips spent one of the longest periods in ICU: 105 days. In June, when British Columbia was praised for having such a low number of infections, Greg was the only person still in ICU. He was in his 50s and healthy. Though he survived, his journey is not over, and he recently spoke out against those who are not being proactive against preventing spread of the disease – which brings me to the following point.

During the Covid-19 crisis, no area of contention has been greater than the question of whether or not to wear a mask. Social distancing has been essential to flatten the curve, but has come with its challenges. Many believe the lockdowns have caused more harm than good. After months of lockdown, many want a return to some sense of normalcy, no matter what the cost. That urgency to reopen has been intensified by the right to protest, after the brutal, senseless murder of George Floyd. Still, for many putting on a mask is a hassle. 

There has been a lot of talk about how self-isolation and physical distancing have had a negative effect on mental health. While I can’t comment on how this epidemic has affected everyone, I suspect many of those effects, though certainly not all, have surfaced because we have all been forced to look at ourselves in the mirror, and face who we really are. There was a time in history when “know thyself” was a Delphic maxim that was heralded as the way to divinity, and the only way we can truly understand others. The ancient Greeks lived by it.

Self-knowledge is about looking in the mirror and seeing not just yourself, but your connection to the world around you. It is not about becoming so absorbed in a narcissistic need to see how many likes you get for a selfie you post on Facebook, or a picture of what you had for lunch on Instagram. Many of us are familiar with the classic tale from Ovid’s Metamorphosesabout the young Narcissus who falls in love with his own reflection at the side of a pool. Sadly, few of us have paid attention to its meaning.  The inseparability between Narcissus and his own reflection was the ultimate example of the pitfalls of self-absorption. Unfortunately, the fixation with one’s physical appearance and public perception is a true epidemic. So what the hell are we supposed to do when a pandemic like Covid-19 wreaks havoc on our planet? How can we post pictures that flaunt our expensive restaurants experiences or exotic travel destinations? What the myth teaches us is that by falling in love with his own reflection in the mirror Narcissus failed to see the rest of the world. Had he moved his eyes, and changed his perspective, he would have seen that a mirror’s reflection includes an infinite number of views. He would have seen that the mirror reflects everything in the natural world, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, mental or physical disability.

What became of Narcissus is also crucial to understanding the myth’s moral. In the end Narcissus was turned into a poisonous flower – the common daffodil. Sure, daffodils are pretty, but put them in a vase with other flowers and watch the beautiful irises, tulips and roses die. Try as they might, they will be unable to escape the toxin released into the water by the daffodils, and all you are left with is a vase with a bunch of daffodils and wilted reminders of beautiful life destroyed before its time. Sound familiar? Indeed, poisonous people can have the effect on others as the daffodil.

Many will see an analogy here between white privilege and the Black Lives Matter movement that has surfaced in the weeks since George Floyd’s senseless murder, and they will not be mistaken. However, these parallels are made with a modicum of caution. The Narcissus myth is not about labeling one variety as bad, despite how it does stand out from others in terms of colour. If they stare at themselves long enough in the mirror, anyone can become so self-absorbed that they are turned into a daffodil. The trick is to move your eyesand recognize that you are not the only one in room. In fact, the room is filled with countless others who all deserve their moment in the spotlight, have their reflections seen, and their voices heard. Movement is key. It is movement, after all, that distinguishes between freedom and slavery, liberty and constraint, or independence and addiction. We can all learn to prevent this immobility if we think of the mirror as a door. Moving your eyes, and changing your point of view when looking in a mirror, opens the door to new perspectives and permits the mind to discover a world of diversity.  

In his famous song, Imagine, John Lennon wrote about the possibility of a world without the need for the concept of “heaven”– and “no religion, too,” for that matter. He visualized a world in which a brotherhood of man trumped greed, hunger and even war. Lyrics like “Imagine ALLthe people” stressed the need to respect the rights of every individual. Lennon’s song was inspired by the divine that lives in each and every one of us. It does not have to come with the name Yahweh, Jehovah or Allah. Religion has no place here. Lennon understood intuitively that being divine signifies being kind, compassionate, and inclusive. However, while we all possess the divine within it is only manifest by how we choose to live our lives in the present. Nowis the moment of our divinity. It is not in the legacy we leave behind to our children, or history. What could be a better legacy than being remembered as a kind and loving person? Divinity is in the things that we do. It resides in taking the high road when the moment batters you with difficulty. It exists in lending a hand to help those less fortunate. And it lives in all of us as love.

Ultimately, wearing a mask, or not, is a choice. That choice depends upon realizing that there is more than just ourselves in the mirror. I wear it for those who have been forced to leave this world attached to a ventilator, separated from their loved ones. I wear it for Dr. Greg Phillips. But most of all, I wear it because I would like to be remembered as a magnificent rose, and not a common daffodil.   

Disclaimer: The author claims no prejudice against daffodils – the flower; nor were any daffodils harmed in the writing of this essay.