Editorial Feature

Hands that say a lot

A look into the most striking palms and fingers in art history

Europe is home to more than 90 languages, but a surprising amount of what we say to each other isn’t communicated verbally. Here we look at 12 hand gestures that have left their mark on European culture.

Walking around the great art galleries of Europe, you may wonder why the subjects of many paintings are making strange hand gestures. These are actually a kind of coded language, conveying very specific meanings.

In this 1538 masterpiece by Hans Holbein, Henry VIII’s long awaited male heir Edward looks a little like he is waving. But to an English Tudor viewer his open palm would signify a blessing.

Edward VI as a child by Hans Holbein the Younger (From the collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)

The French painter, Joseph Decreux may have been the first to take common hand gestures and make them the subject of his work, creating a series of self portraits in exaggerated poses that would be much more familiar to us today.

In Le Discret from 1791, he raises his finger to his pursed lips and warns you to be silent, which may have been sensible advice at the height of the French Revolution.

Le Discret by Joseph Ducreux (From the collection of Spencer Museum of Art)

From trying to avoid attention to trying to get it, this cameo from 400 CE depicts the common Roman motif of tweaking your ear with your hand to get yourself noticed.

The Greek inscription reminds a woman’s lover to not forget her, even in the afterlife: "Remember me, your dear sweetheart, and farewell, Sophronios".

Cameo set into a mount (From the collection of The J Paul Getty Museum)

While ear-tweaking may be largely forgotten, other gestures remain widely recognisable today. This famous sketch by Albrecht Dürer, drawn in 1508, depicts the familiar pressing together of hands in prayer. These are thought to belong to the artist himself.

Praying Hands by Albrect Dürer (From the collection of Albertina)

A more recent universal hand gesture was imported to Europe during the Second World War, arriving with troops from the United States who used the thumbs up to mean that everything was ‘OK’.

This photograph shows how quickly it caught on, as a young French woman celebrates liberation by Americans in 1944.

Celebrating Liberation (From the collection of Getty Images)

Sometimes it isn’t the gesture you make, but how you use it. In this 1920s Polish army recruitment poster by the illustrator Stanisław Sawiczewski, the soldier’s sternly pointed finger demands that the viewer signs up to fight for their homeland.

Join the Army. Defend your Homeland poster (From the collection of The National Museum in Warsaw)

While in this 17th Century painting by Jan van Bijlert, St Mark’s equally sternly pointed finger directs the viewer to read his gospel of peace (the piercing realism of the evangelist isn’t matched by the rather unconvincing lion, which was painted over in 1953 before being restored).

Mark the Evangelist by Jan van Bijlert (From the collection of The Kremer Collection)

Similarly, the clenched fist has been a symbol of power for as long as people have been making hand gestures, as with this imposing Anatolian drinking cup from 14th Century BCE, dedicated to the Hittite storm god Tarhuna.

Drinking vessel in the shape of a fist (From the collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

But it also represents resistance in the face of power. In the mid-20th Century, the raised fist became a symbol of popular struggle against all forms of repression, from the Republicans fighting in the Spanish Civil War to the streets of Northern Ireland to the peaceful uprisings of the Prague Spring.

This 1968 front cover of the UNEF (National Union of Students of France) magazine ‘Action’ shows the students’ combining together to form a giant fist, raised against heavy-handed policing of their political protests.

Action (From the collection of May Events Archive)

And no study of European hand gestures would be complete without acknowledging one of their most common uses: to show contempt.

In his sketch ‘Despise the Insults’, below, Goya depicts an urbane Spanish gentleman, probably the artist himself, making an offensive gesture to a pair of dagger-wielding French generals who represent Napoleon’s occupation of Spain.

Contemptuous of the Insults by Francisco José de Goya (From the collection of The J Paul Getty Museum)

At the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, Polish pole vaulter Władysław Kozakiewicz famously responded to the crowd, who had booed him throughout, by celebrating his gold medal winning jump in unusual fashion.

When the Soviet ambassador to Poland demanded he be stripped of his medal for the insult, Polish authorities explained that the gesture wasn’t offensive at all, but an involuntary muscle spasm caused by exertion.

Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz after winning the gold at the 1980 Summer Olympics (From the collection of Polish History Museum)

As technology impacts the lives of Europeans more and more, it is strange to reflect that the hand gesture that unifies us all today probably isn’t an insult, a prayer, a pointed finger, or even a thumbs up.

Instead, it’s something we all do almost entirely unconsciously - the gentle thumb-scrolling of a smartphone screen, beautifully captured in this 2017 photograph of her daughter by director Lara del Arte.

Distracted by Lara Del Arte (From the collection of National Portrait Gallery)
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