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What Do the Hand Gestures in Icons Mean?

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A classical Greco-Roman rhetorical tradition survives in Christian iconography

 

Have you ever wondered, while looking at religious icons, why the figures of Christ and the saints make certain hand gestures? Each gesture has a specific meaning, but it’s no wonder we can’t always understand them: they’re “written” in Greek! Classical Greeks and Romans developed a well-established, quite complex hand-gesture code, which was used by both orators and rhetoricians alike, when they were giving speeches in the agora or the Senate, during their private addresses, or even in the classroom. The gestures accompanying the oratory, of course, were a matter of public knowledge at the time. That is, they were quite common and understood by almost everybody. But not by us. So we need a bit of help to decipher them.

 In the image, the top five gestures used by speakers of classical antiquity. The upper right image is what we see reproduced in the traditional icons. With that gesture, speakers began the prologue, the first of the five canonical parts of a speech.
Public Domain

It is not surprising that the first Christian icon painters used this repertoire of hand gestures in their paintings of Christ, saints and angels. For example, in icons of the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel is generally shown with his hand raised in the same way Roman rhetoricians raised theirs when indicating they were about to start an important sentence. That is, it was the gesture that preceded the exordium of their discourse. This tradition was so rooted in ancient Rome that such gesture can be seen even in the oldest surviving Annunciation image.

 The oldest image of the Annunciation, in the catacombs of St. Priscilla.
Public Domain

The meaning of this hand gesture, as associated with classical oratory, is also the source of the iconographic motif showing Christ raising His hand in the very same attitude of a classic Roman or Greek speaker. Clearly enough He, more than anyone, has something important to say, right?

However, this hand gesture has even more levels of meaning that deserve to be taken into account. Specifically in the case of the figure of Christ, the symbolism associated with manual gestures is more complex.

In principle, in any Byzantine Catholic or Orthodox iconic representation of Christ, Jesus’ right hand is shown raised in attitude of blessing. This same hand gesture is used by the priest to bless others in the liturgy, and for this reason saints who are clerics are depicted raising their right hands in the same way.

The hand gesture of blessing is also a kind of sign language, with the fingers shaping letters.
Public Domain

In Greek Orthodox iconography, as also in early Christian iconography, the gesture of the blessing hand actually shapes the letters IC XC, an abbreviation for the Greek words Jesus (IHCOYC) Christ (XPICTOC) which includes the first and last letter of each word. The hand that blesses reproduces, with gestures, the Name of Jesus, the “Name above every name.”

The way the fingers are grouped also conveys a message.
Public Domain

In addition to shaping letters, the gesture of blessing made by Christ also conveys doctrinal truths. The three fingers used to spell the I and X also represent the Trinity, the Unity of One God in three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Bringing the thumb and the ring finger together to touch not only forms the letter C, but also symbolizes the Incarnation, the union of the divine and human natures in the person of Christ.

Look closely next time you see an icon. There will be messages for you to read, now that you know the language.

 

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