Hand of God (art)

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The hand as an isolated motif. Fresco from Sant Climent de Taüll in Catalonia.
The Hand of God intervenes at the Sacrifice of Isaac, Armenian, Akdamar, 10th century

The Hand of God, or Manus Dei in Latin, also known as Dextera domini/dei, the "right hand of God", is a motif in Jewish and Christian art, especially of the Late Antique and Early Medieval periods, when depiction of Jehovah or God the Father as a full human figure was considered unacceptable. The hand, sometimes including a portion of an arm, or ending about the wrist, is used to indicate the intervention in or approval of affairs on Earth by God, and sometimes as a subject in itself. It is always an artistic metaphor that is never intended to indicate that a hand was physically present or seen at any subject depicted, and there are no examples of the Hand of God actually being seen in the Bible. The Hand is seen appearing from above in a fairly restricted number of narrative contexts, often in a blessing gesture, but sometimes performing an action. In later Christian works it tends to be replaced by a fully realized figure of God the Father, whose depiction had become acceptable in Western Christianity, although not in Eastern Orthodox or Jewish art.[1]

The largest group of Jewish imagery from the ancient world, the 3rd century synagogue at Dura-Europas, has the hand of God in five different scenes, including the Sacrifice of Isaac,[2] and no doubt this was one of the many iconographic features taken over by Christian art from what seems to have been a vigorous tradition of Jewish narrative art. Here and elsewhere it often represents the bath Kol (literally "daughter of a voice") or voice of God, a use also taken over into Christian art.

The hand may also relate to older traditions in various other religions in the Ancient Near East.[3] Like the hamsa amulet, the hand is sometimes shown alone on buildings, although it does not seem to have existed as a portable amulet-type object in Christian use. It is found from the 4th century on in the Catacombs of Rome, including paintings of Moses receiving the Law and the Sacrifice of Isaac.[4]

There are numerous references to the hand, or arm, of God in the Hebrew Bible, some clearly metaphorical in the way that remains current in modern English, but others capable of a literal interpretation.[5] There are three occasions in the gospels when the voice of God is heard, and the hand often represents this in visual art.[6] Gertrud Schiller distinguishes three functions of the hand in Christian art: as symbol of either God's presence or the voice of God, or signifying God's acceptance of a sacrifice.[7]


Iconography of the hand

Clothed hand clutching wreath, San Clemente, Rome, 1140–43.

The motif of the hand, with no body attached, provides a problem for the artist in how to terminate it. In Dura-Europos the hand, with a larger portion of (naked) arm than is usual in Christian examples, mostly comes directly from outside the picture space, and the top border or frame terminates it. But in the Sacrifice of Isaac there it is shorter, sleeved, and terminates within the picture space, more like Christian examples.[8] In Christian narrative images the hand most often emerges from a small cloud, at or near the top of the image, but in iconic contexts it may appear cut off in the picture space, or spring from a border, or a victor's wreath (left). A cloud is mentioned as the source of the voice of God in the gospel accounts of the Transfiguration of Jesus (see below).

The Dura-Europos examples are mostly open-handed, some with fingers spread out, but Christian examples usually form a blessing gesture, if they are not performing an action, though some just show an open hand. The normal blessing gesture is to point with the index and next finger, with the other fingers curled back and thumb relaxed. There is also a more complicated Byzantine gesture which attempts to represent the Greek letter chi, Christ's initial, which looks like a Latin letter "X". This is formed by crossing the thumb and little finger inside the palm, with only the forefinger and next one extended,[9] or a variant of this.

Especially in Roman mosaics, but also in some German imperial commissions, for example on the Lothair Cross, the hand is clenched around a wreath which goes upwards, and behind which the arm then disappears, forming a tidy circular motif. Especially in these examples, the hand may show the sleeve of a garment, sometimes of two layers, as at San Clemente, Rome. In blessing forms the hand often has a halo, which also may provide a convenient termination point. This may or may not be a cruciform halo, indicating the divinity, and specifically the Logos, or Pre-existing Christ (see below).


Visigothic capital with the Sacrifice of Isaac.

The hand is regularly seen in depictions of certain scenes, though it may occur on occasion in a much wider range.[10] In many scenes one or more angels, acting as the messengers of God, may appear instead of the hand. Many of the early Old Testament narrative cycles are believed to derive from a lost tradition of Jewish illustrated mauscripts. A virtually unique mosaic depiction of the Ark of the Covenant (806) at Germigny-des-Prés, which includes the hand, is believed also to be derived from Jewish iconography.[11]

In Christian art the hand will often actually represent the hand of God the Son, or the Logos; this is demonstrated when later depictions start to substitute for the Hand a small half-length portrait of Christ as Logos in a similar circular frame. It is nearly always Christ in the East, but in the West God the Father will sometimes be shown in this way. However in many contexts the person of the Trinity intended cannot be confirmed from the image alone, except in those images, like the Baptism of Christ, where Jesus the Incarnate Christ is also present, where the hand is clearly that of God the Father. Later Eastern Orthodox images often identify Hands as the Logos with the usual monogram used in icons.[12]

Old Testament

Moses receives the Tablets of the Law, and hears the call of God. Paris Psalter.
Ascension of Christ and Noli me tangere, c. 400, ivory. See below for a similar Ascension 450 years later.

New Testament

Divine approval of rulers

The recreated "Hand of Justice" used in Napoleon's coronation, Musée du Louvre.

The hand often blesses rulers from above, especially in Carolingian and Ottonian works, and coins. The hand may hold a wreath or crown over the ruler's head, or place it on the head. A posthumous coin of Constantine the Great (the "deification issue") had shown the hand reaching down to pull up a veiled figure of Constantine in a quadriga, in a famously mixed message that combined pagan conventions, where an eagle drew deified emperors up to the heavens, with Christian iconography. From the late 4th century coins of Late Antique rulers such as Arcadius (and his empress), Galla Placidia and others show them being crowned by it – it was in fact mostly used for empresses, and often only appears on issues from the Eastern Empire.[25] This theme is not then seen in Byzantine art until the late 10th century, when it appears in coins of John I Tzimisces (969–976), long after it was common in the West.[26] In later Byzantine miniatures figures the hand is often replaced by a full figure of Christ (in these examples much smaller than the Emperor) placing a crown on the head.[27]

A similar symbolism was represented by the "Main de Justice" ("Hand of Justice"), part of the traditional French Coronation Regalia, which was a sceptre in the form of a short gold rod surmounted by an ivory hand in the blessing gesture. The object now in the Louvre is a recreation, made for Napoleon or a restored Bourbon king, of the original, which was destroyed in the French Revolution, although the original ivory hand has survived (now displayed separately). Engraved gems are used for an authentic medieval feel. Here the hand represents the justice-dispensing power of God as being literally in the hands of the king.


Dedication miniature in a copy of St Gregory's Moralia in Job, 11th century.

The hand can also be shown with images of saints, either actioning a miracle associated with a saint – in Catholic theology it is God who performs all miracles – or above an iconic scene. In the Bayeux Tapestry the hand appears over Westminster Abbey in the scene showing the funeral of Edward the Confessor. The hand sometimes appears (see gallery) in scenes of the murder of martyrs like St Thomas Becket, clearly indicating neither involvement nor approval of the deed, but approval of the saint. In the dedication miniature shown, the blessing hand seems pointed neither at Emperor Henry III, nor St Gregory or the abbot, but at the copy of Gregory's book – the same copy which contains this miniature. This looser usage of the motif reaches its peak in Romanesque art, where it occasionally appears in all sorts of contexts – indicating the "right" speaker in a miniature of a disputation, or as the only decoration at the top of a monastic charter. A number of Anglo-Saxon coins of Edward the Elder and Æthelred the Unready has a large hand dominating their reverse sides, although religious symbols were rarely so prominent on Anglo-Saxon coins.[28]

In Eastern Orthodox icons the hand remained in use far longer than in the Western church, and is still found in modern icons, normally emerging from circular bands. Apart from the narrative scenes mentioned above it is especially often found in icons of military saints, and in some Russian icons is identified by the usual inscription as belonging to Jesus Christ. In other versions of the same composition a small figure of Christ of about the same size as the hand takes its place, which is also seen in many Western works from about 1000 onwards.

The hand appears at the top of a number of Late Antique apse mosaics in Rome and Ravenna, above a variety of compositions which feature either Christ or the cross,[29] some covered by the regular contexts mentioned above, but others not. The motif is then repeated in much later mosaics from the 12th century.

The earliest surviving icon of the Virgin Mary, of about 600 from Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai, has an often overlooked hand, suggesting to Robin Cormack that the emphasis of the subject is on the Incarnation rather than a simple Virgin and Child.[30] Another of the very few major Eastern works showing the Virgin from before the Byzantine iconoclasm, an apse mosaic (lost in 1922) from Nicaea, also shows the hand above a standing Virgin. Few similar uses of the hand are seen in later Virgins, though the iconographically adventurous Byzantine Chludov Psalter (9th century) has a small miniature showing the hand and dove above a Virgin & Child.[31] The hand occasionally appears in Western Annunciations, even as late as Simone Martini in the 14th century, by which time the dove, sometimes accompanied by a small image of God the Father, has become more common.[32]

Anonymous print on the situation of the Netherlands in the 1570s, with three hands

From the 14th century, and earlier in some contexts, full figures of God the Father became increasingly common in Western art, though still controversial and rare in the Orthodox world. Naturally such figures all have hands, which use the blessing and other gestures in a variety of ways. It may be noted that the most famous of all such uses, Michelangelo's creating hand of God in the Sistine Chapel ceiling, breaks clear of God's encircling robe above the wrist, and is shown against a plain background in a way reminiscent of many examples of the earlier motif.

The motif did not disappear in later iconography, and enjoyed a revival in the 15th century as the range of religious subjects greatly expanded and depiction of God the Father became controversial again among Protestants. The prints of Daniel Hopfer and others make frequent use of the hand in a variety of contexts, and the personal emblem of John Calvin was a heart held in the Hand. Very free use of the motif is made in prints relating to the religious and political fall-out of the Reformation over the next two centuries, in prints on the Dutch Revolt for example. In a high Rococo setting at the Windberg Abbey, Lower Bavaria, the Hand of God holds scales in which a lily stem indicating Saint Catherine's purity outweighs the crown and sceptre of worldly pomp.

The similar but essentially unrelated arm-reliquary was a popular form during the medieval period when the hand was most used. Typically these are in precious metal, showing the hand and most of the forearm, pointing up erect from a flat base where the arm stopped. They contained relics, usually from that part of the body of the saint, and it was the saint's hand that was represented.

See also


  1. ^ Anthropomorphism in the Jewish Virtual Library, especially the section on Jewish art near the end.
  2. ^ Hachili, pp. 144–145
  3. ^ Summarized by Hachili, 145
  4. ^ Hachili, 146
  5. ^ Anthropomorphism in the Jewish Virtual Library (see also the section on Jewish art lower down)
  6. ^ "in Ravenna and in Western art from the ninth until the eleventh centuries" according to Schiller I, 149, although Western examples of the hand in depictions of these occasions extend well before and after these dates.
  7. ^ Schiller, II 674 (Index headings)
  8. ^ Hachlili, 144 analyses all the examples from the synagogue paintings; Kessler, 130–131, with illustration. See also the crude mosaic floor at Beit Alfa Synagogue, with a similar hand.
  9. ^ Didron, I, 201–3
  10. ^ See index of Schiller II under "Hand of God"
  11. ^ Beckwith, 14–16. The only ancient Jewish image of the Ark appears to be at Dura-Europos [1], though it also appears as the oldest Jewish bible illustrations surviving, from the 10th century (see Beckwith).
  12. ^ For example in this icon, as compared to this one, which shows the Hand replaced with a Christ/Logos.
  13. ^ The account in Genesis naturally credits the Creation to the single figure of God, in Christian terms, God the Father. However the first person plural in Genesis 1:26 "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness", and New Testament references to Christ as creator (John 1:3, Colossians 1:15) led Early Christian writers to associate the Creation with the Logos.
  14. ^ Though both hand and knife are now missing, with only a wrist stump now remaining.
  15. ^ Noga-Banai, Galit. The Trophies of the Martyrs: An Art Historical Study of Early Christian Silver Reliquaries, Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 0-19-921774-2, ISBN 978-0-19-921774-8 Google books
  16. ^ Image (of facsimile)
  17. ^ Ezekiel Ch. 2, NIV
  18. ^ Utrecht Psalter online – for hands see Psalms 2,5,14,21–23,26,29,40,42,48,53–55,63,77,83,86,105,111,118,123–125,132,136–7.
  19. ^ Grabar, 115 & Schiller, I pp. 134 & 137–9
  20. ^ Mark 3:16–17 NIV; all three Synoptic Gospels have the voice.
  21. ^ Schiller, I pp. 148–151. See also Mathews, p. 96
  22. ^ Bible texts and commentaries
  23. ^ Schiller, II, 49
  24. ^ Schiller, II, 107–108 and passim
  25. ^ Catalogue of late Roman coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection: from Arcadius and Honorius to the accession of Anastasius, Philip Grierson, Melinda Mays, Dumbarton Oaks, 1992, ISBN 0-88402-193-9, ISBN 978-0-88402-193-3 Google books gives a full account of Late Antique usage. See also David Sear coin glossary
  26. ^ Christian Themes in Byzantine Coinage, 307 - 1204, Zach Margulies
  27. ^ Examples here and here
  28. ^ Casson, 274 & illustration on 269
  29. ^ One previously at Santi Cosma e Damiano (for example, see Dodwell, p. 5), seems now to have been restored away. Others are in Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Santa Prassede, and others illustrated here or on Commons.
  30. ^ See also the apse mosaic of the Euphrasian Basilica, from about the 550s, which has a very similar composition.
  31. ^ Schiller, I, p. 7 & fig. 3
  32. ^ Schiller, I pp. 43,44,45,47, figs 82, 97, 108