A Handful–Symbols, Faith, and History: Ancient Art Reveals Spiritual and Cross-Cultural Connections Through Hand Gestures

by Michelle A. McLemore

First published in Crazy Wisdom Community Journal Jan 1, 2024.

December gave the world a lot to celebrate: Bodhi Day, Day of Our Lady Guadalupe, Hanukkah, Yule, Christmas, Kwanza, Zarathost Diso, and New Year’s Eve. Colorful lights and crackling fires against a crisp winter canvas always help me find time to ponder spiritual connections and how humanity has attempted to make sense of and, perhaps ironically, immortalize our understandings. The written word and art have always been equally powerful mediums for capturing abstract yet visceral emotions. Even tentatively opening the door to a museum or a used bookstore makes me catch my breath in anticipation and reverence for the sheer energetic power combined in one space from so many inspired, deeply affected souls.

I wonder as I wander the aisles: am I understanding what the creator intended as well as appreciating my own reactions? Art may be in the eye of the beholder; however, many artists infuse subtle messages—just as writers may use allusions. For the viewer or reader in the know, these hidden treasures become Easter egg goodies adding richness to the piece if recognized. For others, they are just benign, curious additions. And yet, what is the impact when multiple perspectives can be brought to the same piece for specific features? There may be either enlightenment or argument on which is “right.” And unless you are good with seances, asking the original artist’s intent may not always be possible.

This recent season has led me to seek out spiritual art. In the midst of flowy angels, chubby cherubs, and aura shrouded mystics, I’ve stumbled upon diverse interpretations of artists’ intentions regarding identical hand positions used in a variety of world faiths and artwork from early civilizations.

When I was very young, hands and feet were difficult to draw realistically, so I’d inevitably “run out of space” on the page for the feet. Oops. I’d hide the hands behind hips or objects in order to focus on faces—the ultimate challenge in my mind. I’m certain if a seven-year-old can strategically position hands, then a master most certainly would not haphazardly throw them on the canvas. Hands add emotion for dancers, singers, mimes (sorry—I had to), in addition to general semantic meaning for the deaf or hard of hearing communities. Yet, gestures have also had specific meanings for various groups which go beyond the common index finger pointing for “look there” and the middle finger for “you frustrate me.” Christian clergy, practitioners of Hindu mudras, palm readers, and professional Greco-Roman speakers—among many other peoples—all have specific meanings for very specific gestures used in art.

The question is…was there one original, influential basis for these hand positions, or as different cultures and faiths intermingled in the Mediterranean and Middle East did they influence each other? Is there a right answer for an art piece’s hand portrayal? Were there historical meanings that perhaps even the artists weren’t aware of when composing their piece?

Famous Roman orators, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE) and Marcus Fabius Quintilian (35-100 AD) both record that effective rhetorical delivery covers both enunciation as well as gesticulation of the hands—the latter coming to be called Chironomia. After much nudging, Quintilian published his rhetoric manual near the end of the first century CE. He mentions in The Institutio Oratoria, “No one will deny that such details form a part of the art of delivery, nor divorce delivery from oratory; there can be no justification for disdaining to learn what has got to be done, especially as chironomy, which, as the name shows, is the law of gesture, originated in heroic times… (189).

It makes sense that there would be common gestures for speakers and leaders to communicate across great crowds. For meaning to endure across centuries, gestures would have had to be recorded, taught, and used in a consistent manner even as a part of a commoner’s daily life. Religio Romano, Hellenistic paganism, Egyptian Heka, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Islam—all pre-Christian denominations—left evidence of gesture similarities in artwork. As time went on, these gestures also began showing up in Christian artwork and ceremonies—some still in use today.

Let’s examine just a few gestures—starting with a simple one—to add layers of perspective per chance you happen upon these gestures in the future….

Finish reading the reading article at at CWCJ home.