Study of Hand Signs in Judeo-Christian Artevi
us ad iy mhistightntatirg and
P yinsu alJuce heymi se-cre e-lib yme s.
eshu irap lsoim ege alco
ab hewa ndgestures.1,2 Studies of body-motion communication fur-the
sig r-alltio gesthastu s-tur atwe .Th leth -ing sca can
sthr lsfou asan togivfingers of the hand have also maintained a special
11r confirm that the graphic hand gestures and handsymbolic importance in ancient societies. In somschools of Kabbalah, a mystical Judaic sect, the fingof the hands represent the Ten Commandments of tspiritual law, whereas the 10 toes represent the TCommandments of the physical law.3 Furthermore, the4 fingers on each hand symbolically represent the elements (water, wind, earth, and fire) and the 3 planges of each finger represent the divisions of telements (the created, the maintained, and the dstroyed).3 It is evident that the symbolic value of thands was established early in mans religious historThe earliest Judeo-Christian sects also shaped the artitic use of hand symbols by attaching unique meanin
e appreciate the support from a National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skiniseases Midcareer Investigator Award in Patient-Oriented Research (K24 AR053120; to K.C.C.).
om The University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, MI; and the Section of Plastic Surgery,epartment of Surgery, TheUniversity ofMichiganHealth System,AnnArbor,MI.
ceived for publication January 14, 2008; accepted in revised form January 17, 2008.
o benefits in any form have been received or will be received related directly or indirectly to thebject of this article.
rrespondingauthor: Kevin C. Chung,MD, Section of Plastic Surgery, TheUniversity ofMichi-nHealth System, 1500 E.Medical CenterDrive, 2130 TaubmanCenter, SPC5340, AnnArbor,MI109-5340; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
82 ASSH Published by Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.Ashwin N. Ram, BS, K
Hand gestures play a crucial role in religioan ecclesiastical language that is concealegestures. Many of these hand signs conveadmiring these paintings. Investigating the hand signs found in Judeo-Christian art mmany nuances of symbolic art. This presehand signs in Judeo-Christian art. ( J Hand Suthe American Society for Surgery of the HKey words Christian art, hand gestures, hand
OPULAR WORKS SUCH as The Da Vinci Code haverecently awakened dormant interest in a varietof medieval art pieces that are thought to conta
btle messages. Even a minor analysis of medievdeo-Christian art demonstrates unquestionably thatrtain hand signs and gestures do exist and that tght have been intentionally created to convey a t, mysterious message. What results from these derate hand signs are ancient stories that conveanings and lessons of significance to their admirerThe hands are structured in a way that optimizman interaction with the environment. Beyond theparent motor and tactile functions, the hands can apart a variety of informative signs and expressivstures to serve as an important means of nonverbmmunication.1 When a prehistoric human lacked theility to express abstract thoughts verbally, he or ss forced to enhance the limited vocabulary with han C. Chung, MD
rt. An examination of Judeo-Christian art findsn metaphors and expressed by unique handessages that are not familiar to most people
ory and classifying some of the predominant serve to stimulate discussion concerning theon examines the meaning behind 8 common2008;33A:1182 1188. Copyright 2008 by. All rights reserved.)ns, hand symbols, Judeo-Christian art.
ns of this prehistoric hand language actually pael linguistic structure.1 These movements can func-n like sounds and can be combined to form messat range from the very simple to very complex.1 Bydying hand gestures, researchers found that the geal communication of ancient man had forms thre surprisingly similar to words in spoken language1is holds true even in modern times; a simpumbs-up can describe a certain mutual understand between individuals, whereas certain finger gesture
n reflect an intense feeling of dissent. In art, one arly see the appeal of using well-developed hanns to express religious ideas.Hand symbolism has taken on various meaningoughout the ages. Medieval paintings and murand in Roman Catholic churches often depict God
almighty hand emerging from the heavenly clouds e spiritual guidance to saints and prophets.3 The
HAND SIGNS IN JUDEO-CHRISTIAN ART 1183the hands to communicate religious concepts andiritual principles. An example of this concept can beund in symbolism of the thumb. The 2 phalanges of
thumb taken together with the thumb metacarpalresent the threefold Divinity (the Father, Son, andly Spirit); more specifically, the distal phalanx rep-ents the creation of man, the proximal phalanx rep-ents the preservation of man, and the thumb meta-
rpal represents the destruction of man.2,3 When thends are brought together, the 24 phalanges of thegers symbolize the Twenty-Four Elders who repre-nt the newly created Church of Christ, and the 3mb bones of each hand taken together represent the
Days of Creation.3
ND SIGNS IN JUDEO-CHRISTIAN ARTe of hand signs as secret messages in art began withearliest Christian groups who depended on artistic
mbols to convey exclusive messages between mem-rs.4 As a response to the obstacles presented by theersity of tongues and locations of the different Chris-
n communities, some early Medieval intellectualsggested that a universally adopted language of hand
URE 1: Example of the Sign of Preservation. da Vinci, L.131516). St. John the Baptist. St. John makes a clear
piction of the Sign of Preservation, signifying theportance of baptism (that John the Baptist represents) inaining salvation. (Available at: http://z.about.com/d/history/1/0/K/5/13_n_StJohnTheBaptist.jpg. Accessed Janu-
5, 2008.)JHS Vol A, Septesture could unite the estranged Christian groups.5llowing this thought, artists started to depict carefullyfted images that slowly gained acceptance amonglay people and eventually ascended to dominance invarious churches.4 Therefore, the origins of hand
ns in Judeo-Christian art can be traced to an evolu-n of hand symbols that were collectively agreed onthe art community.4The evolution of hand symbolism in medieval arts established by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci,
a Angelico, and Antonio da Correggio, in large part
URE 2: Examples of the Sign of Despair. A Michelangelo351541). Detail from The Last Judgment. A manstrating the Sign of Despair in Michelangelos famousral found on the altar wall in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican
ty. (Available at: http://www.hobby-o.com/damnedlarge.jpg.cessed January 5, 2008.) B Steen, J. H. (1661). Thecrifice of Iphigenia. A king on the right side of thisinting leans on his stick in dejection presenting the Sign ofspair as an executioner is about to kill a woman. (Available at:p://www.rijksmuseum.nl/aria/aria_assets/SK-A-3984?langen.cessed January 5, 2008.)mber
1184 HAND SIGNS IN JUDEO-CHRISTIAN ARTan effort to present teachings to the predominatelyiterate public before the introduction of educationstems to the masses.5 These signs were part of ancient and ritualistic Mystery Language that ex-essed religious themes and left behind secret mes-ges in many of the artistic relics of the Medievales.2 It is believed that the symbolic nature of Judeo-
URE 3: Examples of the Sign of Heaven and Earth. Assi, D. (1528). Diana and Calisto. A woman displaying
Sign of Heaven and Earth portending a womansendance to heaven after her death. (Available at:p://www.wga.hu/art/d/dossi/diana.jpg. Accessed January 5,08.) B da Correggio, A. (1525). No Li Me Tangere. Jesusseen here presenting the Sign of Heaven and Earth as heaks to Mary Magdalene after his Resurrection. (Available
http://www.abcgallery.com/C/correggio/correggio24.html.cessed January 5, 2008.)JHS Vol A, Septeristian art is due to the substantial amount of influ-ce by the Freemasons, a fraternal organization ofpert craftsmen who were appointed by clergymen torform the bulk of the artistic work now present inurches and cathedrals across Europe.2 Because theeemasons were given the freedom to be creative, theycided to incorporate their unique knowledge of sym-lic imagery into many of the scenes presented inigious art.2 That is why many of the Judeo-Christianworks we find today are characterized by a didactice that communicates various ideas to leave a story inpainting.2 J. S. M. Ward, an accomplished writer on
eemasonry and an authority on religious art, catego-ed several of these hand signs in order to restore thisce well-known knowledge.2 According to Ward,ong the most prevalent hand gestures encountered in
edieval Judeo-Christian art are the Sign of Preserva-n, Sign of Despair, Sign of Heaven and Earth, Sign ofessing, Sign of Prayer, Sign of Resignation, Sign ofstress, and Sign of Praise.
n of preservation
this gesture, one hand is placed over the heart whileother is raised at a right angle at the elbow with the
URE 4: Representations of the Sign of Blessing. Bellini,(1460). Christs Blessing. Christ is seen here presentingSign of Blessing amid the ominous backdrop. (Availablehttp://www.abcgallery.com/B/bellini/bellini14.JPG. Accessed
uary 5, 2008.)mber
HAND SIGNS IN JUDEO-CHRISTIAN ART 1185
JHS Vol A, Septend pointing upward (Fig. 1).2 The individual display-the sign is requesting his or someone elses preser-
tion based on his fidelity to God.2 There are severalriations of this sign that are usually attributed toistic efforts to maintain visual balance in a piece or toicate a subtle change in meaning. In an important
riation, Jesus is depicted in the pose but with the ringd little fingers folded onto the palm in the form of anediction. This gesture indicates Jesus assurance thatse who receive him will gain preservation.2
URE 6: Depictions of the Sign of Resignation. Arenzetti, A. (c. 13171348). Annunciation. Depiction ofelation to Mary by archangel Gabriel that she will conceiveus. Mary is making the Sign of Resignation showing that
is resigning her fate to God. (Available at: http://w.abcgallery.com/L/lorenzetti/alorenzetti1.html. Accesseduary 5, 2008.) B Angelico, F. (c. 14301432). Altarpiecethe Annunciation. Illustration of Mary receiving word that
will conceive Christ. She makes the Sign of Resignationthe Divine Light streams onto her from the Heavens.
vailable at: http://www.abcgallery.com/A/angelico/gelico27.html. Accessed January 5, 2008.)URE 5: Illustrations of the Sign of Prayer. A Memling, H.14801485). Portrait of a Praying Man. A clear
stration of the Sign of Prayer. (Available at: http://www.cgallery.com/M/memling/memling3.html. Accessed January2008.) B Durer, A. (1496). The Prodigal Son amid theine. An engraving illustrating a scene from the parable of
Prodigal Son. The man depicted is making a Sign ofyer. (Available at: http://www.arthistory.sbc.edu/artartists/
ages/printsdurer.jpeg. Accessed January 5, 2008.)mber
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is to communicate that someone has descended fromHe toill onto sig theres inwh rushainc ristspla fin-ge n-wa
In theSi hristto ofthe olyGh tlefin hilethethu intothe ostun i-ate
Th ioussig ris-tia s areplapr ndstogsig isus
Th verthe theshfac thisdeRe twh cedin sy re-sigtharew
1186 HAND SIGNS IN JUDEO-CHRISTIAN ARTn of despair
spair is indicated by resting the head on one hile supporting the elbow of that arm by the ot
nd with the arm lying horizontally across the soxus (Fig. 2).2 Often, the head is resting on the rig
nd, but it is also common to find the head restin left hand if it is more advantageous to the artims of balancing the painting. The Sign of Despaimmonly found in Judgment scenes being made lost souls who have discovered their lives to be
in and is occasionally seen expressing the Virgarys sorrow in Crucifixion scenes.2 The Sign ofspair is also used to express the defeats and distres
everyday life and frequently communicates a sen despondency and regret.6
n of heaven and earth
e Sign of Heaven and Earth is made by extende hand above the head pointing skyward and er extended downward pointing to the earth (Fig. 3).is sign is unique in that its origin dates back end connected with Buddha. When Buddha wa
cused of immoral conduct by a wicked woman, inted with his hands to the sky and the earth calon Heaven and Earth to witness the falsity of arge.2,7 In Judeo-Christian art, the effect of this si
URE 7: Illustration of the Sign of Distress. Roman fresco1st century AD). Sacrifice of Iphigenia. Iphigenia makesSign of Distress as she is carried away to be executed
ile witnesses look on in sadness. (Available at: httpw.beloit.edu/ classics/Trojan%20War%20Site/Iphigenia/rifice_of_Iphigenia(Fresco_Pompeii-1st_cent._CE).jpg. Accesseduary 5, 2008.)JHS Vol A, Septeaven to Earth and afterwards ascended again, or ustrate the opposite wherein someone has passed
the grave and has later ascended to Heaven.2 Then is found most commonly in connection with urrection of Christ and the miracle of Lazarus, ich Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead after Laza
d spent 4 days in a tomb.2 A variation of this signludes the hands in front of the body with the wced adjacent to each other with only the index
rs of each hand pointing either upwards or dowrd.2
n of blessing
Judeo-Christian art, it is common to encounter gn of Blessing, which is used by holy men and C
consecrate objects and bless people in the name Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Host).2 The sign prescribes that the ring and litgers should be folded to the palm of the hand w index and middle fingers are held upright.2 Themb is usually held erect but can be found folded ring finger. This hand sign is one of the miversally recognized and is very commonly assocd with ecclesiastical use (Fig. 4).
n of prayer
e Sign of Prayer is one of the best known religns that is present in, but not limited to, Judeo-Chn art. In the Sign of Prayer, the palms of the handced together with the fingers pointed upward.2 A
evalent adaptation of this sign is to fold the haether and interlock the fingers.8 The meaning of thisn is straightforwardit is a gestural motif that
ed to indicate that a person is praying (Fig. 5).
n of resignation
e Sign of Resignation entails crossing the hands o chest with the ends of the fingers resting on
oulders (Fig. 6).2 Traditionally, the left arm shoulde most anteriorly, placed over the right arm, but
tail is often abandoned in artwork.2 The Sign ofsignation may have originated in ancient Egypere the dead were buried in this position and plasarcophagi that were molded in this fashion.2 The
mbolism of this position implies that the dead ned their souls into the hands of God with confidencet He, the Great Judge, would give to them the justard of their deeds and that their sufferings were not
mparable with the glory that would be revealed tom.2,9mber
Sign of distress
HAND SIGNS IN JUDEO-CHRISTIAN ART 1187
JHS Vol A, Septee Sign of Distress is a remarkable hand gesture thats taken on many representations. In its truest form,
Sign of Distress is a snapshot of a patterned pro-ession of heaving the hands up with the palms toward
front and slightly upward and then dropping them tosides.2 Traditionally, there are 3 stages involved inact of making this sign, all of which are incorpo-
ed in Judeo-Christian art. In the first motion, the armsfully extended above the head. Then, the arms are
nt and the hands are in line with the head. Finally, thends are brought down to chin level, after which they
dropped to the sides (Fig. 7).2 Artistic figures whoin mortal danger issue a desperate appeal for help by
aking the Sign of Distress.
n of praise
e Sign of Praise is sometimes mistaken for the SignDistress but there are crucial differences. In the SignPraise, the hands are uplifted and are sloped forwardth the hands facing outward and the elbows bent (Fig..2 The Sign of Praise conveys a sentiment of exalta-n or reverence. This sign also bears a clear resem-nce to the first movement of a Middle Eastern greet-
and so is thought to date back to the ancientyptians.2There is a rich and complex history tied to the
esence and use of hand symbolism in Judeo-Christian. These hand gestures represent ancient traditionalowledge that has been neglected and devalued untilent times. During the Renaissance and the Reforma-n, the old symbolic system was nearly discontinuedd the meaning behind a considerable number of theseysterious hand signs was lost.2Symbolism may be present in various art forms,rticularly when connected with religion. In general,nd signs in art are a subtle, aesthetic, and effectiveeans of communicating important principles andoral lessons. Hands often represent who we are. They we think, act, and live are expressed through thestures and positions of our hands. Hand signs play anportant, if enigmatic, role in Judeo-Christian art.ey have been, and will continue to be, an important
pect of art and emotive expression.
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angelist, the Virgin, and Saints Dominic and Jerome. An conferring the Sign of Praise upon Jesus after hisucifixion. (Available at: http://www.museum-replicas.com/ages/productimages/small/angelico_crucifixion-red.JPG. Ac-sed January 5, 2008.) B Angelico, F. (14251430). Presen-
ion in the Temple. A lady poses with the Sign of Praise as shepresented with baby Jesus. (Available at:
p://www.museum-replicas.com/images/productimages/all/Angelico-presentation-red.JPG. Accessed January 5,08.)mber
4. Hornik HJ, Parsons MC. eds. Interpreting Christian art: reflections onChristian art. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2003:188189.
5. Knowlson JR. The idea of gesture as a universal language in theXVIIth and XVIIIth centuries. J History Ideas 1965;26:495508.
6. Dodwell CR, Graham T. eds. Anglo-Saxon gestures and the Romanstage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000:7576.
7. Ghori AK, Chung KC. Interpretation of hand signs in Buddhist art.J Hand Surg 2007;32A:918922.
8. Sebeok T, Umker-Sebeok J. eds. Monastic sign languages. Berlin:Mouton de Gruyter, 1987:195.
9. Drury J. eds. Painting the word: Christian pictures and their meanings.New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000:48.
1188 HAND SIGNS IN JUDEO-CHRISTIAN ARTJHS Vol A, September
Study of Hand Signs in Judeo-Christian ArtHAND SIGNS IN JUDEO-CHRISTIAN ARTSign of preservationSign of despairSign of heaven and earthSign of blessingSign of prayerSign of resignationSign of distressSign of praise