A Theory of Hands: The Semiotics of Faith in Early Modern Art – by Michael Coughlin

My latest book:

A Theory of Hands: The Semiotics of tFaith in Early Modern Art

         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 Resurrection and Penitent Mary 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 Judgement painted for the Sistine Chapel (Fig. 3). In the fresco Christ is painted with both his 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 Strength he painted a personified Wisdom standing 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 Spirit, 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.