Editorial Feature

12 Hand Gestures That Have Left Their Mark On European Culture

Helping hands

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)
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