June 11, 2013

At the Met: The Eloquence of Hands

Rogier van der Weyden, Francesco d'Este, ca. 1460; oil on wood, 12 1/2 x 8 3/4 in.
See the entire painting here.

During a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art  I began to look at the gestures of hands, seeing how their movement and what they held expressed feelings and told a story, sometimes more eloquently than the face portrayed. In the examples I found, mainly of Netherlandish painting, the hands are sensitively rendered, and a secondary focus of the composition. In the portrait of Francesco d'Este, a son of a ruling family, van der Weyden placed one hand resting on another that is balanced on the edge of the picture. He is holding a ring and a hammer, which may be either symbols of power or jousting prizes.

Lorenzo di Credi, Portrait of a Young Woman, ca. 1490-1500; oil on wood, 23 1/8 x 15 3/4 in.
See the entire painting here

The young woman in di Credi's portrait is also holding a ring, but for a very different purpose. Her hands are crossed, as in a pledge, and the ring could, as the catalog entry says, have "connubial significance", which is how I read it. An interesting piece of information at the Met's entry for this painting is that it wasn't until the mid 15th century that Florentine portraits of women were other than in profile and bust length. So earlier paintings would not have included the expressive hands.

Attributed to Hans Memling, Young Woman with a Pink, ca. 1485-1490; oil on wood, 17 x 7 3/8 in.
See the entire painting here.

Here the hand is holding a flower delicately aloft, framed by the space between dress and arm. A pink was a symbol of betrothal.

Gerard David, The Annunciation, 1506; oil on wood, 31 1/8 x 25 in.
See the entire painting here.

A hand is held aloft, one finger pointing skyward, as the angel announces the coming birth of Jesus.

Hans Memling, The Annunciation, 1465-75; oil on wood, 73 1/4 x 45 1/4 in.
See the entire painting here.

Mary, in another painting, accepts the greeting with what seems to be uncertainty in the gesture of her hand, as though to say "wait". In the book of Luke, it says of the moment "she was troubled at his saying".

North Netherlandish Painter, Christ Bearing the Cross, ca. 1470; oil on wood, 42 3/8 x 32 3/8 in.
See the entire painting here

Sometimes several hands make a symphony of movement, a flow from one to another, as clear as the spoken word. This painting celebrates an annual procession in Bruges, honoring the city's most sacred relic, a cloth stained with a drop of Christ's blood. The cloth is here being held carefully in two hands, and one is touched gently by Christ as an acknowledgment, his other hand holding the cross, while a soldier's hand behind holds a rod. This is one painting where the faces are individual and quite extraordinary, so see them at the link above.

Gerard David, The Crucifixion, ca. 1495; oil on wood, 21 x 15 in.
See the entire painting here.

The hands are prayerful and sorrowful, enhancing the facial expressions.

Gerard David, Christ Taking Leave of His Mother, ca. 1500; oil on wood, 6 1/8 x 4 3/4 in.
See the entire painting here.

There is a beautiful arrangement of hands at the center of this small painting, forming a curved circle of prayer, sadness, and leave taking, echoing the circle of heads.

Greek Attic, Marble stele (grave marker) of a woman, ca. 375-350 B.C.; marble, height 54 in. 
See the entire sculpture here

For the final image, we go back in time and into three dimensions for a simple and touching gentle clasping of hands. It is a subtle, yet deeply moving, small gesture of love and loss. Much of what we know of the world comes through our hands, we use them to supplement speech, or to speak if we have no voice. Some hand signals are widely known (think of the time-out signal and others in sports); a crooked finger moving toward the body is a clear "come here"; a baby learns bye-bye very early. So in art, we can pay attention to the pictured hands.


  1. wonderful post! thank you, I love hands

  2. Lovely post. Plus, as a postcard collector, I really appreciate seeing a detail of the paintings.

  3. Saw some very beautiful Memling's in Antwerp a few years back and I beleive if ever there was a master of the quiet gesture it was'he'.

  4. Thanks for the comments, Julie and tony. Julie, I have a couple of boxes of old postcards bought years ago from a yard sale.
    tony, a couple of years ago the Frick Collection in NYC had a remarkable show of Memling portraits. It was such a treat to see them, quiet and profound.

  5. It was the Ribera hands in Brooklyn that really cought my eye when I was in New York last year - http://glasgowpainter.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/riberas-hands-at-brooklyn-museum.html - so much expression!

    1. Those hands are so amazing, jane; thanks for the link.