Figures contribute to narrative and the reading of a painting in several ways, most commonly including facial expressions and their gestures or body language. In this week’s two articles about reading visual art I look at two related and distinctive forms of body language: the raising of one arm, and of both. These have long histories, going back to the earliest depictions of human figures seen in cave art, and are used extensively in ancient paintings from Mediterranean civilisations. I’ll start with some of the earliest Christian art, showing the story of the raising of Lazarus.
Jesus Christ is told that Lazarus has fallen ill, and his two sisters seek his help. However, Jesus tells his disciples that he intends waiting for Lazarus to die, so that God can be glorified. He then delays for two days before returning to Bethany, by which time Lazarus has been dead and buried for four days. His sisters and the village are still in grief and mourning, so Jesus asks for the stone covering Lazarus’ tomb to be removed. He then commands the dead man to come out of his tomb, and Lazarus emerges, still covered in the linen cloths used for burial. Jesus tells the people to remove those cloths and let him go.
This account from The Rossano Gospels from about 550 CE tells this in a continuous strip, with Lazarus’s sisters pleading at the feet of Christ in the centre, who is holding his right arm up with the index and middle fingers extended, and the ring and little fingers flexed into the palm.
This is a gesture of benediction, already in widespread use among the clergy of the early Christian Church, known as the benedictio latina. The two figures at the left of the lower section display this gesture, but the two at the right are additionally extending their little fingers, in the variant known as the benedictio graeca.
In this section of a fresco from the church of San Baudelio in northern Castilla dating from around 1130, the benedictio latina is used in the healing of the blind man at the left, but not in the raising of Lazarus at the right.
Its most famous appearance is in Giotto’s early The Raising of Lazarus (c 1305), one of his frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. Christ is clearly making the benedictio latina at the swathed corpse of Lazarus. Other figures have their arms raised or active, as gestures of amazement, even though their facial expressions remain fixed and devoid of emotion, as was the convention in paintings at that time.
The raised hands of others may merit different interpretation.
In Leonardo da Vinci’s striking portrait of Saint John the Baptist, from about 1513-16, only the index finger of his right hand is extended and points towards heaven. Although this gesture and its close relatives have since acquired more irreverent readings, in this case it’s a reminder that all humans ultimately must face the judgement of God.
If Leonardo also painted this Salvator Mundi, which remains controversial, he too used the benedictio latina.
In Giampietrino’s copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper there’s plenty of expression in arms and hands, with the figure of ‘doubting’ Thomas holding his index finger in extension. This is usually interpreted as marking Thomas’s questioning.
The rise in secular narrative painting in the eighteenth century brought a richer range of meanings to raising one arm.
For Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii, the three brothers express their loyalty to the state as they reach out to take the swords they’ll use to fight the Curiatii, combining that gesture with a salute. This was commissioned for King Louis XVI, as an allegory about loyalty to the state and the monarch, which David interpreted as a message about the nobility of patriotic sacrifice. He cunningly left the viewer to decide where that loyal patriotism should be directed. Within five years, the French Revolution was at its height.
In David’s later painting of The Death of Socrates (1787), the philosopher points to the heavens with the index finger of his left hand, while his right hand reaches for the bowl of hemlock which will kill him. This is a gesture of defiance, in asserting that Socrates continues to hold his beliefs even to death.
Several of the survivors on Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1818-19) raise their arm towards the ship on the horizon, reaching out towards their hope of rescue and drawing attention to their predicament.
For the young Eugène Delacroix, in his Barque of Dante painted at the age of only twenty-four, Dante, with scarlet on his head, is shielding his face from the flames and horrors of Hell.
An outstretched arm can also be a forceful accuser.
In Jean-Joseph Weerts’ painting of The Assassination of Marat from 1880, arms and hands are so strongly accusative that they look theatrical. Among the crowd pointing and waving are Simonne Evrard (Marat’s fiancée), a distributor of Marat’s newspaper, two neighbours (a military surgeon and a dentist), and Republican troops. Charlotte Corday is still clutching the knife which she plunged into the body of Marat in his bath, and shrinks back against the wall, transfixed.
This reaches its extreme in the Furies, as seen in one of the last and grandest works of John Singer Sargent.
Sargent started Orestes Pursued by the Furies in 1922, and completed it in 1925, just prior to his death. Over its 100 square feet of canvas, it shows a young and naked Orestes cowering under the attacks of the Furies, as he tries to run from them. The swarm of no less than a dozen fearsome Furies have daemonic mask-like faces all staring wildly at Orestes, blond hair swept back, and hold out burning brands and fistfuls of snakes.
Dimitri Hazzikostas (1998) Arms Raised, section in Helene E Roberts (ed) Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography, vol 1, Routledge. ISBN 978 1 138 89259 0.