A Mysterious Gesture

I kept stumbling across this strange gesture when looking at European portraiture in the 1500s.

El Greco hand

painting on La Magdalena
La Magdalena Penitent, (attributed to) El Greco, 1590s
oil painting Christ carrying cross
Christ Carrying the Cross, El Greco, 1577-87

Essentially it’s a hand with extended fingers splayed across the chest with two middle fingers joined. It’s an elegant pose but it’s an unnatural one for your hand to be in, it can even hurt.

Try it now, I’ll wait.

Not exactly comfortable for most people. So why is it seemingly everywhere?

It’s known from mannerist paintings, most famously in the work of the master El Greco, like in the example above. But it can be seen across Western European art spanning centuries.

There’s just one problem, no one really knows what it means.

Theories and Possible Explanations

I’m going to go ahead and call it the El Greco gesture – the ‘W’ symbol has too many gang connotations. And zygodactylism is just, yeah, I’m okay with the El Greco gesture.

Art historians, religious figures, and conspiracy theorists have studied the El Greco hand gesture and have come up with wildly different theories. Let’s explore a few.

Religious Sects

The 1500s was a fiercely turbulent time in Spain. As with most periods, people were killing and exiling each other over God and country.

Case in point:

Christopher Columbus
Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus, Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519

One theory hypothesizes that the El Greco gesture was a secret sign crypto-jews made in 16th century Spain. Crypto-Judaism refers to Jewish people that outwardly “accepted” baptism to remain in Spain after the Alhambra Decree.

While the context fits the period, it does seem unlikely people would put their illegal status for all to see.

And this gesture can be seen in portraits across Europe, too, not just in Spain. Like in Agnolo Bronzino’s pieces, a Florentine mannerist master.

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It has also been argued that it’s a symbol of sin and penance in Jesuit circles. I’m assuming as a homage to Christ’s five wounds, but I couldn’t find clarification. If that’s the case why does the hand move around so much from painting to painting – Christ’s chest wound wasn’t on his hip or helmet.

Also, Bronzino’s figures are cutting dashing figures, especially The Portrait of a Young Man, who doesn’t look like he’s interested in repenting anything.

portrait of a man detail

Syncretic Goddess

Some cultural anthropologists argue the gesture is an evolution from the image of breastfeeding goddesses.

It’s a well-researched theory and there is admittedly some similarity between these paintings and the gesture, but I was unable to uncover many more that were strikingly similar to the gesture El Greco uses. Often only one finger is separated from the other three.

The reason? It’s a syncretic lactating gesture from ancient goddesses, like Isis, to Mary. By mimicking it men seek eternal salvation and immortality and wrest control away from the divine mother.

Madonna holds her nipple
Detail of Madonna with Saints, Sandro Botticelli, 1484

While I want to go with this theory it seems odd that high-ranking men would want to mimic breastfeeding. (I mean, I’m all for it, but it doesn’t scream power and prestige.) Also, the El Greco gesture is not always placed in the chest area, as seen in Bronzino’s works.


The Prado Museums holds that the El Greco gesture is likely a symbol of an oath to the crown.

El Greco painting
El Caballero de la Mano al Pecho

Without doubt, the most convincing suggestion has connected this figure with the Second Marquis of Montemayor, Juan de Silva y de Ribera, a contemporary of El Greco who was appointed military commander of the Alcázar in Toledo by Philip II and Chief Notary to the Crown, a position that would explain the solemn gesture of the hand, depicted in the act of taking an oath.

Museo del Prado

Indeed, El Greco mainly used it in his religious paintings, but here we see it in a more secular setting (though if anything regarding Philip II can be said to be secular is up for debate, good god). This gives some credence to the idea that the gesture was more than a religious one.

art of mime

Also, this English manual of miming signifies it was once a sign of affirmation – but of what?

Illuminati and Final Thoughts

Others think the sign could be a part of a club, specifically the Illuminati or the Freemasonry.

Portrait of a Young Man, Botticelli, 1485
Portrait of a Young Man, Botticelli, 1485

Moving on.

Sort of. It’s possible that in the end, this pose was a fashionable sign of membership. Maybe a signal to others that they were part of the rich people club or something. It’s just probably not Satanists or Freemasons. Plus, you know, women are using the gesture.

Also, it’s a sleek look that shows off long elegant digits.

Perhaps other artists thought, “Hey that looks sweet, I’ll do that, too”.

But it’s unlikely that a patron would spend ludicrous amounts of money for the artist to copy others, a lot of the examples used in this post are from masters after all.

Cheaper portraits would be rendered as simply busts – hands are difficult and require more time and talent (and money). So it’s a rather frivolous expenditure unless it had more meaning than aesthetic.

Then again, that gets into the crux of what art is for, and I ain’t going there.

So, we may never know the meaning of the gesture. But we can still admire it.

Grace Dalrymple Elliott, Thomas Gainsborough, 1754?
Grace Dalrymple Elliott, Thomas Gainsborough, 1754?

Read more:

Museo Del Prado: The Prado Museum English Guide

Portraiture: Facing the Subject (Critical Introductions to Art)

3 thoughts on “A Mysterious Gesture”

  1. I find it strange that you find it uncomfortable to put your fingers into this position, or can only do it with difficulty. I find it very easy and natural and I suspect that the origins of it might be that it is a resting position. (Perhaps these days it’s seen less because, more and more, we are using our hands in unnatural ways, for instance swiping screens, using mice, keyboards and other controllers, etc.

    As an example, have a look at the right hand in this video in the opening shot. https://youtu.be/b892SoE76P4

    Also, try this: put the fingers of your right hand over the inside of your left wrist (or the fingers of your left hand over the inside of your right wrist) as if you were going to take your pulse. Now, leaving the middle and ring finger resting on your wrist, lift the other two fingers in the air. Easy. Try it the other way: leave the index finger and little finger on your wrist and lift the other two: not so easy.


    1. Those are fascinating anatomical points!

      Re your last point: it is definitely more difficult to lift the two middle fingers. However, I can keep the two fingers together comfortably on my right hand only for a few seconds. Then they start to stress out. It’s a bit more comfortable on the left hand. I’m jealous of you – it looks so elegant!

      I wonder if resting positions have changed as you say. Interesting thoughts. I read recently that we walk differently from our medieval counterparts. http://mentalfloss.com/article/505105/why-people-walked-differently-medieval-times

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      1. I’m sure a lot about our bodies and movements – and range of movements – has changed over time. (Interesting article and video – will read and watch properly tomorrow as it’s late now).

        By the way, one of the exaggerations in the paintings of the hand position is that the hands are straight – whereas this position would more naturally have been with the hand slightly curved inward.

        When resting the two middle fingers, try lifting your hand from the wrist (ie the wrist of the hand whose fingers you’re resting) and letting the fingers just touch the other wrist. I think the stress comes in trying to imitate the paintings and have the hand straight rather than curved. (Or it might just be me!)

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