What does this hand gesture mean in Icons?

Close-up of Christ's Icon

This is an extract from a longer post about the Icon of Christ, but deserves a separate entry. It explains the meaning behind the way Christ and the Saints are sometimes shown holding their right hand in icons, as shown in the picture above.

Origin of the hand gestures
In ancient Greece and Rome, there was a well-established system of hand-gestures used in oratory and rhetoric. Here is a diagram of some of the most commonly used. Some of the oldest surviving Orthodox icons are found in Rome, and so it is believed that the first Orthodox iconographers may have co-opted these hand gestures when depicting Christ, His Saints, and the Angels. For example, in icons of the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel is shown with hand raised in the way which in the ancient world signified the beginning of an important oration. This can be seen in the oldest surviving Annunciation icon, and the hymns of the feast recall both Gabriel’s the important news he gave to Mary, so the hand-gesture is fitting.

This oratory meaning is probably the original “source” of showing Christ raising His hand, as more than anyone else He has something important to say. However, to any Orthodox or Catholic Christian, Jesus’ right hand in Icons is unmistakably shown as being raised to give a blessing. The arrangement of the hand is repeated by clergy when blessing others and so the Saints in icons, if they were clergy, often hold their right hand in the same way. This has a symbolism all of its own which has developed over time, and is worth investigating.

Symbolism of the Blessing
The fingers spell out “IC XC”, a widely used four letter abbreviation of the Greek for Jesus (IHCOYC) Christ (XPICTOC). It is by the name of Jesus that we are saved and receive blessings: “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;” (Phil 2:10).

The three fingers of Christ – as well as spelling out “I” and “X” – confess the Tri-unity of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The touching finger and thumb of Jesus not only spell out “C”, but attest to the Incarnation: to the joining of divine and human natures found in the body of Jesus Christ.

Similarities with Buddhist Iconography
The above meanings are worth emphasizing because otherwise there can be some confusion, or even scandal, caused by similar images of the Buddha holding his hands in a very stylized way. In response to this there are a few things which need to be considered:

  • Given the well-established use of hand-gestures in ancient Greek and Roman oratory explained above, and the geographical location of Christ’s Incarnation and the early Christian Church, it is far more likely that the hand gestures were “borrowed” by Christians from the Roman senate than the disciples of Buddha.
  • There is meaning behind the way Christ holds His hand in Icons; there is meaning behind the way Buddha holds his hands in statues: but there the similarity ends. The symbolic hand gestures of Buddha are called mudras, and whilst they are rich in their own meaning, they are not communicating the same faith as Icons of Christ. If we rejected every medium for conveying Truth just because another religion uses the same medium then we’d be left with nothing! We must accept the similarities and discern the differences.
  • Just because a religion was around before Christ was born, doesn’t mean that all its teachings predate Christianity. Of the common Buddhist Mudras, the Vitarka Mudra is the one which most resembles Christ’s right hand in icons. Yet the earliest representations of the vitarka mudra show the three fingers straight, rather than curved. Much later we see images like this one, which look remarkably like Christian iconography. Yet the image is from the 8th century A.D., centuries after the iconography of Christ is established. We can be forgiven for questioning just exactly which religion is influencing the other.
  • Finally, the Buddhist mudras are didactic; they are hand gestures designed to convey a message. Yet the “IC XC” Christogram is much more than this: it is both a sign and means of blessing. A statue of the Buddha holds his hands just so and his devotees are supposed to remember a certain teaching; Christ raises His right hand and Christians receive the blessings of God. More than this, even if His servants, the Saints, holds their hands in the same way, we are assured of receiving the blessings of God, through the name of Jesus Christ
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46 Responses to What does this hand gesture mean in Icons?

  1. Mark Nielsen says:

    Thanks much for this straightforward but Spirit-infused explanation. I saw the hand gesture recently in an icon, painted by a friend schooled in the Russian principles. I even had a moment of transcendence, a sort of blessing, through the icon (though I myself am not from Orthodox traditions, …more a post-Catholic mongrel open to various traditions, leaning Protestant but also mystical). My friend happened to be present a few minutes later, but she could not recall or articulate very well the points you make above, despite being a gifted painter.

    The historical/philosophic way you address the Buddhist commonalities and differences is especially helpful. I sometimes wonder if the divine sense of “body/physicality/holy Creation” that both Orthodox Christian & Buddhist Spirit-seekers have (even slightly in common w/ yogis) is a spiritual gift forgotten by many “head-centered” believers reared in European-rooted beliefs and practices.

    Though Jesus is the one Incarnation, perhaps any of His followers –via the Holy Spirit– have opportunities daily to incarnate or embody certain aspects of the divine nature. My own “hand of blessing” at times may be God’s instrument to bless myself and God’s world. Furthermore, my/our finger position may become richer with meaning (become sharper tools) if I draw closer to God by mimicking the physical practices of our forefathers, who may have learned or sensed them from the Master himself.

    • Friar Dan says:

      When creating an icon, the verb that is used is “to write,” not “to paint or draw.” Hence, your friend is learned in writing iconography or else is a painter who simply copies a syle into her painting.

      • iconreader says:

        Hello Friar Dan:
        Clearly to say that an Icon (which is Greek for “image”) is “written” is poor English – so the only justification for saying icons are “written” is if there is a good theological argument for doing so. I myself am unconvinced there is.

        Painters *can* copy a style into their paintings, but so can writers, so that is a distinction without a difference.

        I think the reason “writing” is used to describe iconography is because the Greek word for making Holy Icons is graphos. This can be translated as “writing” (as shown in words like graphology, the study of handwriting) but can also be related to images that are drawn (graphics, graphs etc). The Greek word covers both things that are written and things that are drawn, carved or painted. In English there is no such all-encompassing word, and given that the creation of icons requires paints, brushes, and a surface to apply them to, “paint” seems a perfectly reasonable word to describe what is done. Linguistically is makes no sense to say “write”, and it doesn’t appear to add anything theologically either, unless you are predisposed to see the written word as more somehow superior to images.

        I’m sorry for writing this way, as I do not normally pay much attention to whether people use the word “write”, “draw”, or “paint” to describe the creation of icons. But when I read comments about how the verb write *should* be used, I am pushed to nail my colours to the mast and say that “to paint” an icon is less confusing and more accurate than saying “to write”.

      • If I may add, whether Icons are written, or painted. Compare biblical scribes in a parallel sense with iconographers.
        A scribe who copied Sacred Scripture wrote the text according to canonical principles, as well as strict standards within the ‘scribe guild.’ The Scripture was not his own, and it was his job to pass down the sacred text, even if it didn’t make sense to him. Especially with some of the more puzzling biblical passages, he would be tempted to ‘correct’ the inspired text, as he thought it should read, not as it was passed down to him. While some scribes added their own two cents with a marginal gloss, it was clear they were not to tamper with the sacred text. So, the scribe ‘writes’ Scripture, insofar as he is faithfully passing down the sacred text, which is not his own; otherwise, he would be composing, not writing, in the strict scribal sense.
        The iconographer was equally obliged to pass down the icons according to iconographic canonical principles. The icon was a visual version of Sacred Scripture and orthodox doctrine, so the iconographer was not permitted to ‘paint’ an icon, which would suggest he is adding his own flourish or style. He is to ‘write’ it, as is, and not tamper with any of the details, since he knows he is not copying another person’s painting, nor creating his own innovation, but faithfully passing down the visual theological doctrine.
        I’m going by what an icon teacher relayed to me. It always stuck with me, and makes a lot of sense. One reason why there is so much friction with the new iconographers, is that they are creating their own versions according to some style that is outside or beyond the doctrinal tradition. It would be as if a scribe were to come along, and re-work a biblical passage to suit his fancy. Thus, he would be not an iconographer, but an innovator, a painter.

      • iconreader says:

        Hello Father,

        I don’t disagree with what you say about the need to carry on the traditions of iconography without adding human innovation, and talk a bit about that in this article:

        http://iconreader.wordpress.com/2012/05/21/what-makes-an-icon-holy/ (and then the section titled ‘Holy Icons must be “accurate”’.

        However, on the issue of using the word “paint” or “write”, I remain unconvinced. I don’t think “write” has the strict meaning you give it. If we produce something new, we “compose” as you rightly say; if we copy something already written then we “transcribe”. Both composing and transcribing involves the mechanical act of “writing”. To “paint” something carries exactly the same *borad* meaning but with images instead of words: whether we copy something (as iconographers should do) or we produce something entirely new, we are still “painting” as long as we are using paints as our medium.

        I think this distinction between “painting” and “writing” is unnecessary and doesn’t really serve any purpose in clarifying what iconographers do (or what they shouldn’t do) because it requires new (dare I say, innovative), specialist, definitions of what these words mean in English. Not only does it fail to clarify the role of an iconographer, I think its use can even be a little bit pretentious, and therefore off-putting to people interested in this fascinating and deep subject.

      • Rdr Edward says:

        I will accept that it is a proper English translation to say that that an iconographer “writes” an icon — on the day that it is considered proper English to say that one “writes” a photo”graph”, that musicians “wrote” phono”graph” records, that “graphic” designers “write” everything that they do in their line of work.

        The reality is that while there is one Greek word or stem, “graph,” that is used for many things, good English translations use the English words that we would actually use to describe what is being done, such as when an iconographer paints an icon.

        Saying that icons are “written, not painted” has always struck me as a mixture of ignorance (which I mean in the sense of simply not knowing something) and pretentiousness. I personally don’t care if someone wants to say that an icon is “written.” I do mind being corrected by officious folks who insist that it is wrong to say that an icon is painted. In my opinion, “paint” has the far stronger linguistic case to be made for it, so I don’t plan to change.

        That said, what makes an icon a real icon is not the word used to describe the action, but whether the iconographer is Orthodox and has painted (or written, if he or she prefers to say it that way) the icon according to the traditions of iconography — with prayer, respecting the traditions of content and style, etc.

    • geloruma says:

      Dear Mark,
      I think I can understand what you are asking, I hope you don’t mind if I try to clarify the Christian approach to God; we do not draw closer to the Christian God by merely mimicking his practices;
      in Catholicism, recognise the Christian God as the only God. When we submit our body mind and spirit to Him, this “consecration” of our whole self, including our will – gives him permission for his Holy Spirit to work through every aspect of our lives. This is the only way to contain his Spirit; the power we contain is his for his purposes. It is an intimate relationship, the only “tool” needed is to accept that the God of the Christians is the only one true God. This is very different from Yogic, Hindu, Buddhist practices which tend to be philosophies at best. Indeed Christ is the Master to learn this form, he showed by example that submission to God is the only way to achieve the Bliss of eternal life

      • Paco says:

        Why say “…which tend to be philosophies at best?” How do you know? From reading books, or by practicing them? Your tone moves me to offer a different perspective.

        Jesus said “Be still and know God.” IMHO, he did not mean himself. He meant be still. He meant concentrate on the self-less consciousness within. This, my friend, is meditation, and is not dependent on mythology or theology. It is gnosis, experienced in the now, not faith in ideas and cast in to the future.

        Who among us would dare give up everything they think or believe and sit in pure, not-knowing stillness until that which is ineffable is revealed?

        You may call it “God” if you like, but no one and no belief system can claim it as its own, and no one and no mythology can give a person the experience. One must experience it for oneself.

      • iconreader says:

        Paco:

        “Be still and know that I am God” is a quote from the Psalms, not Jesus. Your misattribution of that (mis)quote to Jesus gives one reminder why some “book-reading” is important when allied to practice.

        I do not disagree with your emphasis on knowing God, rather than merely knowing about Him – and indeed the Bible itself is full of examples of people who had direct experience of God, which Christians are exhorted to emulate. Indeed, this site is full of icons of such men and women who directly experienced God, and so it is good to learn about them.

        Your claim that “no one and no belief system can claim it (God) as its own” is as more of an assertion than any geloruma has made. If you have come to this revelation through “practice” then I humbly submit the countless testimonies of the Saints, some of which are recorded on this site.

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  3. kojin says:

    well i think it sucks we are having a major spit in our russsian old beleiver church because of the sign of the cross. some body noticed that a a few of the icons had one of the fingers to the side of the trinity instead of the finger tips touching. they traced it a thousand years back or so.
    this is spitting the people in two. so now we can’t hang around the other side cause they are considered heretics by my church.
    its screwed up. my wife’s family for the two crosses and my family is for the one cross. i don’t wanna even go to church anymore because of that. this split is unholy. this split effects over 10,000 people. this effects about 20 churches in the alaska, canada, washinton, oregon, minnasota, brazil, argentina and all called heretics by both sides. the rest of the orthodox churches we grew apart. i don’t think it has hit our bros in australia and new zealand or the prohoraneh (prohor’s people split in the 80′s all relatives ).
    we had a major split in the orthodox church in year 1666 (sounds creepy) cause of nikon patriarch changing the cross then and few other things. old beleivers don’t want or like change in the church. we just want to pray to god, live a simple life and not bother anybody. we don’t even want to force you to listen to us like the morman and musilm door to door salesmen.
    the oldest sign of the cross is found on a sarcophagus owed by the popikee in the vatican.

  4. William Manning says:

    What is the significance of the three hands in the icon of the Theotokos?

    • iconreader says:

      Hello:

      This is to do with a subject that I have intended to write about for some time: votive offerings.

      The original icon of the Theotokos with three hands is actually a “normal” icon of the Mother of God with a votive offering of a hand placed upon it by none other than St John of Damascus.

      St John lived under Muslim rule and under orders of the Caliph had his hand chopped off after being falsely accused of being an enemy-of-the-state.

      St John prayed to the Theotokos before an icon of her, and through her intercessions the hand was fully restored. In thanksgiving, he made a silver image of a hand and placed it on the icon. That, in essence is a votive offering.

      http://orthodoxwiki.org/Panagia_Tricherousa

      Because St John is so famous, the icon of the Mother of God with the votive offering became famous too, and copies were made of it, complete with the “extra” hand.

      • john duncan says:

        Hi Iconreader,
        Firstly, thanks for a great site.

        I was wondering if you could helps please.

        Is there anything ‘else’ or significant in the manner of which St Lazarus is holding his ‘fingers’ in this picture or should I just reference back to what you wrote on this before. Its probably nothing but I notice his fingers are not touching but is there anything else significant about this ‘icon’.

        I bought one whilst in Cyprus, at Lanarca where his church/tomb is and I have always wished to know.

        regards
        Johnny

      • geloruma says:

        oh…

  5. Disciple says:

    Thank you so much, iconreader, for explaining about the meaning of hands in icons. As someone who was once a Protestant, then other things, then a Buddhit and now a Catholic, I am always interested in learning more about authentic iconography and signs and symbols. Yes, there is a great difference between Jesus and Buddha, and between Christianity and Buddhism. All too often I see people trying to blend the two, as if it were possible. Thank you also for the tradition about St. John of Damascus. I’ve learned a lot from you already and I only just discovered your blog a few moments ago. God bless you and peace be with you. :)

  6. Disciple says:

    And wouldn’t you know I’d misspell Buddhist in my comment. Can I tell you how much I don’t like typing on an iPad? ;)

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  8. sakra jen says:

    Can you please explain this hands gesture?
    (It’s a wall painting in a monastry church near Jericho. Palestine)

    Thank you very much.
    Sakra.

    • iconreader says:

      This is from a scene of Mary the Mother of God’s funeral procession. It shows the a Jewish priest called Athonios who out of spite tried to topple the funeral bier of Mary. As he approached, an angel of God invisibly severed the hands of the impious priest, which is what is shown in the wall painting. Athonios repented of what he did and confessed the majesty of the Mother of God, for which he was healed, and afterward became a zealous follower of Christ.

      There is more about this, with other examples, in the following post on the Dormition Icon:

      http://iconreader.wordpress.com/2010/08/15/the-dormition-icon-of-hope/

      • sakra jen says:

        Thank you very much.
        I learned a new story that I did not know.
        The link was very helpful too.

  9. matthew says:

    I noticed that in the picture posted by Sakra Jen, which by the way is very interesting, the women have no glowing ring around their head (as does Anthonios). Does this imply that they are unholy?

    • iconreader says:

      Hello Matthew:

      Whilst halos signify sanctity, the absence of halos doesn’t necessarily mean unholiness in a negative way. Sometimes, the choice of who to adorn with a halo may be down to nothing more than aesthetics.

      In the picture mentioned, the Mother of God, the angels, and the surrounding Apostles all have halos and make up the centre of the composition, as beings of known holiness. The other women in the funeral procession are unidentified, and are depicted neither as holy nor unholy, merely anonymous. It is usually inappropriate in icons to depict unnamed people with halos, even if they are the centre-piece of the image. For example, in the icon of the “Crucified Monk”, the monk at the centre is not usually shown with a halo – not because he is “unholy”, but because he is a didactic image, not a specific person whose sanctity has been revealed. (http://iconreader.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/the-crucified-monk-icon-of-the-monastic-life/)

      Anthonios is not shown with a halo because, despite what happens subsequently, he is not behaving in a holy or righteous way in the image. It is not uncommon for even the Apostles to be shown without halos in scenes from Christ’s life. This is because the scenes depicted occur before Pentecost, that is, before the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. “After” this event, the Apostles are shown with halos, but not necessarily before, when they haven’t received such illumination. In any case, the message of Anthonios’ inclusion is as a warning of what happens to those who denigrate Christ through profaning His mother’s memory. Giving him a halo would just be confusing!

      Hope this helps.

    • sakra jen says:

      II was thinking that the first pic was not in a good quality so I took another one of the same scene.

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  11. geloruma says:

    I just discovered it too – love it.

  12. kojin says:

    Well I’m a russian old believer. We hold the four finger and and the index slightly bent next to each other . Suposedly that represents the two fazes of christ . Also the thumb and the two smaller fingers and held together to represent the trinity. Which you know what that is. Our.religeon was passed on from the greeks. I do not have a clue why everybody holds there fingers different. But suposedly it was passed on from Christ. We had a big arguement with the orthodox church when in around 1666.with nikon.patriarch when he changed the sign of the cross to the one the orthodox church uses now. That was one of the main resons the skizm happened. I to am looking for the origins of the sign of the cross. we have writings about it in church slavonik or cirilic. We had a split in our church about the cross when we noticed some of the icons and one of the fingers slightly overlapping the at the trinity of the cross. They said these are not our icons and they have to put them asside. When the side refused that’s when the difference in opinion happened and each side started to call each other heritics. And now me and my wife are kinda of a interacial couple so to speak. Very religeous people that would like some answers. That whole hindu thing don’t mean.a lot to me. Even tho hindus are good people to. Atleast to me anyways.

  13. Chichi says:

    About a decade ago my mom used to work for this Greek family. They had Greek Orthodox portraits of Jesus around their home. Their daughter was mentally disabled (she had Rett syndrome) and always had her fingers in a knot. One time I went to visit and I noticed something startling. The girl was a dead ringer for Jesus. I was a lot younger back then, so I blurted out that the girl’s fingers are just like the guy in the picture. My mom scolded me and I didn’t say anything else after that, realizing that I said something really offensive. Well at least now I know the meaning behind the Orthodox Jesus’ hand gesture :)

    • geloruma says:

      Hello Chichi,
      Christ is always with those who are suffering, Perhaps this is what God was revealing to you in that moment. Your Mom just saw things at face value as the sign was for your benefit – not hers…perhaps?

  14. telemakhos says:

    its alpha and omega which means that he is the begining and the end,

  15. geloruma says:

    A very interesting thread and topic.
    Because Artists seek to express ideas through images; I would think that the original artists inspired to express this imagery of the blessing hand of Christ, (which takes various forms & gestures) cannot state exactly what they had in mind – except to make an image pleasing to God and helpful to man – it is unreasonable in my thinking for it to be a cause of a church split. And I am sorry for Kojin that this has happened.

  16. iconreader says:

    I need to update this post a little, to add the detail that the raised hand was originally a gesture used in ancient Rome when someone (for example in the Senate) had something important to say. The angel Gabriel in icons of the Annunciation also raises his hand this way when he is speaking with Mary. This is probably the original “source” of showing Christ raising His hand, as more than anyone else He has something important to say. The specific positioning of the fingers is something that has developed over time, so that the modern image I have posted at the top of this article *is* meant to spell “IC XC” with the fingers.

  17. geloruma says:

    Another wonderful insight Icon reader, thank You so much for the time you spend in explaining the depth of meaning in Icons to us.. :)

  18. Maiken says:

    Thank you so much for this! I am writing an exam on the subcject religion and art, and this was very helpful :)
    Greetings from Norway.

  19. mcturra2000 says:

    In Buddhist sculptures, the Buddha will often hold his thumb against a finger. The four fingers correspond to the four noble truths, and the one he is touching with his thumb is the one that is being emphasised by the sculpture.

  20. Yuri says:

    I’d like to add to the discussion regarding “writing” vs “painting”. In Russian language writing and painting is the same word – “pisat’”. It may be that some of the confusion may come from Slavic icon-painting manuals that were just poorly translated into English.
    In my opinion icons are “painted” and at the same time inscriptions are “written” on each icon.
    Since image is the dominant part of the icon, I think “Painted” should win.

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  22. kathleen charla says:

    I did not follow the whole discussion about “writing” an icon vs . “painting”, but I will add that Xenia Pokrovskaya, a true, well known and highly revered Russian icon expert and icon writer, told our class that one says icons are written because the icon in the Russian Orthodox tradition is considered a religious document, in the sense that it conveys information and its purpose was to convey information to the faithful.

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  24. Aaron Prater says:

    I say this in saying, without trying to offend, but i simply noticed something about this hand gesture thing….hitler does the same hand gesture in most of his speeches….just watch them..coincidence? I think they may be something here..

    • h says:

      As stated in the article, these hand gestures are likely borrowed from classical oration. I find it more likely that he borrowed straight from that, rather than from Orthodox Icons.

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  27. Daniel says:

    Another note about writing an icon. Just as the Scriptures convey stories and were written, so do icons convey a story. I make pysanky, Ukrainian Easter Eggs. Pysanka comes from the Ukrainian verb pysat, meaning “to write”. The eggs are written and also tell a story. I am constantly asked how I paint them. I do not. The colors are put on by dipping the eggs in dyes, as opposed to painting, gluing things on them, scratching them, or anything else egg artists do. I have also written 3 icons. The process is similar to the writing of an egg, with prayer, with silence, sometimes with chant. The medium is paint (or dye). I am writing whenever I do an egg or an icon. Amen.

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