Reading visual art: 8 Both arms raised

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), El Tres de Mayo (The Third of May) (detail) (1814), oil on canvas, 266 x 345.1 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

While raising one arm can have a range of subtle meanings in paintings, since the Middle Ages raising them both has had more natural interpretations. Ancient sculpture in particular uses outstretched arms as a sign of prayer and the invocation of divine power, culminating in the early Christian orant in pious supplication, but those had disappeared by the Renaissance.

Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio) (1571–1610), Conversion on the Way to Damascus (1600-01), oil on canvas, 175 x 230 cm, Cappella Cerasi, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

In Caravaggio’s second version of the story of St Paul’s Conversion on the Way to Damascus (1600-01), Paul lies back, eyes closed, arms held up to the heavens, and fingers splayed. There may be a slight reminiscence of the orant, but this is primarily shock.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653), Susanna and the Elders (1610), oil on canvas, 170 x 119 cm, Schloss Weißenstein, Pommersfelden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Artemisia Gentileschi’s first painting of Susanna and the Elders from 1610 remains her best-known, and a close-up of the three actors at the crucial moment that the elders tell Susanna of their ‘generous offer’. Susanna is naked, distressed, and her arms are raised, trying to fend the elders off. Her face tells of her pain and refusal to succumb to their blackmail.

The raising of both arms can be a tell-tale sign of the downward movement of a fall, even when the figure has tumbled to a point where those arms are pointing downward towards the earth.

Jacob Peter Gowy (c 1615-1661), The Fall of Icarus (1635-7), oil on canvas, 195 x 180 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

In Jacob Peter Gowy’s finished painting from a sketch by Rubens, Icarus, his wings in tatters, is plunging down through the air past Daedalus. Icarus holds both his arms up as if still trying to fly despite the loss of his wings, his mouth and eyes wide open in shock and fear, and his body tumbling as it drops like a stone.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), El Tres de Mayo (The Third of May) (1814), oil on canvas, 266 x 345.1 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Goya’s masterwork showing the early morning executions of The Third of May 1808 (1814) is perhaps the most memorable example of a figure raising both arms in shock, surrender, and reminiscence of the crucified Christ.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), El Tres de Mayo (The Third of May) (detail) (1814), oil on canvas, 266 x 345.1 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.
Gaetano Chierici (1838-1920), A Scary State of Affairs (date not known), oil, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Gaetano Chierici’s undated A Scary State of Affairs is a lighter-hearted childhood surprise, when an infant has been left with a bowl on their lap, and that room is invaded first by chickens, followed by large and aggressive geese. The child’s eyes are wide open, their mouth at full stretch in a scream, both arms raised in abject terror, and their legs are trying to fend the geese off.

Ferdinand Hodler (1853–1918), The Truth II (1903), oil on canvas, 208 × 294.5 cm, Kunsthaus Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

Ferdinand Hodler’s second version of The Truth, painted in 1903, follows long-established convention in showing Truth as a nude woman, here with both arms raised to hold back six daemons wearing black cloths and facing away from her. The traditional basis for depictions of Truth is rooted in Lucian’s description of the Calumny of Apelles, where they represent Ignorance, Envy, Treachery, Deceit, Slander, Suspicion, Fraud, and Conspiracy.

George Bellows (1882–1925), The Barricade (1918), oil on canvas, 122.2 × 212.1 cm, Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL. Wikimedia Commons.

George Bellows’ The Barricade from 1918 is perhaps the most shocking depiction of raised arms in surrender. He became horrified by the many stories of atrocities allegedly committed by German forces when they had entered Belgium, including this, in which troops had apparently used the local population as a ‘human shield’.

Stuart Pearson Wright (b 1975), Woman Surprised by a Werewolf (2008), oil on linen, 200 x 315 cm. Courtesy of and © Stuart Pearson Wright.

Inspired by the movie An American Werewolf in London, and an episode in the artist’s life, Stuart Pearson Wright’s Woman Surprised by a Werewolf (2008) raises both arms in horror and surprise as she runs away.


Dimitri Hazzikostas (1998) Arms Raised, section in Helene E Roberts (ed) Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography, vol 1, Routledge. ISBN 978 1 138 89259 0.