Hand Gestures in Orthodox Icons

Hand Gestures in Orthodox Icons

Have you ever wondered why figures depicted in religious icon paintings make certain hand gestures? Do you know what they mean? These gestures are not common for modern people, so don’t worry if you cannot understand them.

The truth is that most of the gestures we see in Orthodox icons appeared in ancient Rome and Greece long before Christianity arrived on the scene. They come from a quite complex hand-gesture system used by rhetoricians and orators. Being a matter of public knowledge, such gestures were understood by almost everyone at that time, but they remain a secret language for modern people. However, with just a little effort, you can also learn these important hand gestures depicted in Orthodox Christian icons of Jesus Christ and His saints.

1. Blessing hand

One of the most commonly used hand gestures depicted in Eastern Orthodox icons is a so-called “blessing hand.” As you can see in the photo above, it represents a specific arrangement of fingers that form the letters “IC XC,” which stands for the first and the last letters of the Greek words IHCOYC XPICTOC, meaning Jesus Christ. Thus, the hand that blesses reproduces the Name of Jesus. However, since this gesture comes from ancient times, it is often associated with classical oratory and means that the speaker is going to say something important, which can also be applicable to all icons of Jesus Christ and His saints.

2. Arms crossed over the chest

This gesture looks like the St. Andrew’s cross and is similar to the one used by Eastern Orthodox Christians when going up to receive Holy Communion. It means repentance, submission, and humility. The perfect example of such a gesture is the religious icon of St. Mary of Egypt, whose ascetic life was a feat of repentance.

3. Hand on heart

The hand-on-heart gesture can be found in the icon of St. Seraphim of Sarov, the icon of St. Reverend Siberian Basilisk, and many other holy icons of saints. It means that the depicted person spent much time in heartfelt prayer to God, which puts them on a par with ancient hermits.

4. Open palms

Open palms held at chest height have two meanings. The first one is a prayer to God; the second is the acceptance of grace. This gesture can be seen in the religious icon paintings depicting the Righteous Anna, the Mother of the Most Holy Theotokos, the Righteous Forefather Abraham, the Holy Great Martyr Anastasia Romlyanyna, and other saints.

5. Palm of the righteous

Those who lived holy and righteous lives are often depicted with a characteristic gesture: an open palm facing the prayer. They are open up to people, with no trace of secret evil thoughts or feelings in their hearts. For example, the “palm of the righteous” can be found in the Orthodox icons of the Holy Blessed Matrona of Moscow, St. Theodore Ushakov, and the Holy Princes of Russia Boris and Gleb.

This symbolism has stood the test of time and, therefore, is worth investigating. However, except for hand gestures, religious icons are also filled with many other important symbols. Some of them are hidden in objects held by saints; others are in colors used in Eastern Orthodox iconography. If you need an explanation for any antique icon presented in our online gallery, please do not hesitate to contact us. We will be happy to help!