Жесты рук в религиозном искусстве: история и особенности

Hand Gestures in Religious Art: Ancient History to Church Paintings

Quite often, people interested in medieval art ask themselves, “What do certain hand gestures in religious art mean?” Today, we offer to plunge into history and think back to what ancient traditions Christian art absorbed during the period of its formation and development.

Hand Gestures in Religious Art: Ancient History to Church Paintings

Early Christian art is traditionally defined by scholars as the period between the 1st and the 5th centuries AD, that is, the era from the Nativity of Christ and the beginning of His earthly mission to the full-fledged approach of the Middle Ages. The sophisticated reader may notice that this era generally coincides with the so-called Empire period in Rome. It turns out that early Christian art is absolutely naturally included within the framework of the period of Late Antiquity.

Recognizing this feature is crucial to understanding the origins of so many elements absorbed by the art and culture of the first Christians, completely antique people who lived in the Roman Empire under the Roman emperors.

Hand gestures in religious art have a very specific source in ancient culture: they are all connected to the Roman oratorical tradition. One of the most important sources that explain to us the foundations of oratorical culture in ancient Rome is the work Institutio Oratoria (Rhetorical Instructions) in 12 books by the celebrated rhetor Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (35 – 100 AD).

In his work, Quintilian told how to raise a future orator from the first years of life. In addition to practical instructions for educators and teachers, he also left valuable information about the behavior of an orator. Besides, he wrote on the importance of hands and gestures, which echoed the essence and emotional structure of the speech of the orator because “though the peoples and nations of the earth speak a multitude of tongues, they share in common the universal language of the hands” (Book XI, Chapter III). Any speech of a professional rhetor was always accompanied by gestures that emphasized its meaning, for example, certain gestures highlighted at the beginning of the speech, its main semantic part, etc. It is notable that this text by Quintilian was well known in medieval Europe and Byzantium: it was copied, decorated manuscripts, studied, and stored in libraries.

Many of the oratorical gestures can be seen in Christian frescoes and mosaics. For example, in the scene of the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel is usually depicted with two raised fingers of his hand. Quite often, modern Christians immediately interpret it as a gesture of blessing, but for antiquity, it was an obvious sign that, at that very moment, the Archangel was speaking to the Virgin Mary about the incarnation of Christ.

Hand Gestures in Religious Art: Ancient History to Church Paintings

The Annunciation. Mosaic in the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice. 13th century.

The basic principles of depicting the most important episodes of Holy Scripture were formed in the context of Roman antiquity and in interaction with it, so the artists of the first paintings on those subjects understood perfectly well what such a detail implied because they repeatedly encountered that gesture in life. A similar meaning has a gesture with the raised index finger, as well as the middle finger and little finger: it is a common sign of rhetors, informing about the beginning of the speech.

Through the Byzantine artistic heritage, this tradition passed into Old Rus’ art. For example, in the mosaics of the 11th century in St. Sophia of Kyiv, made by Byzantine masters commissioned by Prince Yaroslav the Wise, one can find the image of Christ the Great Hierarch with the gesture of the “horns,” that is, with the raised index finger and little finger. In the ancient oratorical tradition, well known to Byzantine mosaicists, it was considered a gesture with which the rhetor insisted on his rightness, convincing the audience. Thus, in the context of the image of the Great Hierarch, this gesture of Christ can be interpreted as a vivid and convincing proof of the truth of Christian belief.

Hand Gestures in Religious Art: Ancient History to Church Paintings

The Annunciation. Late 1530s–1540s. From the iconostasis of Saint Nikola’s Church in Lyubyatovo Pogost in Pskov.

However, later on, ancient gesticulation would be present in Old Rus’ art almost exclusively in narrative compositions, most often in the gesticulation of angels in the scenes of the Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, and Annunciation. Although Old Rus’ was not directly familiar with Antique culture, hand gestures in religious art are an amazing detail that connected it to the larger and ancient Christian world.