I kept stumbling across this strange gesture when looking at European portraiture in the 1500s.
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, huh? 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 examples 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
While I want to go with this theory it seems odd that men would want to mimic breastfeeding. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.