The symbolism of hands: from Gargas to Elsa Schiaparelli
Ivory amulet — Spain — around 1600 (British Museum Collection)
by Rossella Locatelli
The hand is the part of our body that is most commonly used as a symbol. In the Caves of Gargas the rock paintings from the Palaeolithic period illustrate numerous hands with one or more fingers absent (bent or mutilated) maybe with a reference to the sacrificial practices.
Every religion has included hands in its iconography: the Indian Buddhist mudras with their numerous meaning; in Islamic Religion the Hand of Fatima and the five primary obligations known as the Five Pillars of Islam, five, indeed, like the fingers of a hand; in Christianity the definition of Christ as “the right hand of God”.Â Laying the hands on somebody means blessing and giving strength to the consecrated person; shaking hands symbolizes a benevolent acceptance, while raised or clasped hands stand for prayer.
Palmistry focuses on the hand and its features, as it hypothesizes that there can be a symbolic analogical relation between hand lines, planetary forces, human inclinations and opportunities.
Hands made of coral — UK — early 1900 (British Museum Collection)
Belt — Elsa Schiaparelli — Fall 1934 (Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
In light of these meanings, the shape of the hand has been a central theme in the apotropaic jewellery over the centuries. In the British Museum collection — as in other jewel collections – there are many hand amulets:Â in the early 19th century hand-shaped charms made of coral, a material which is traditionally thought to increase positive spiritual energy, were given as a pledge of love; in the 17th and 18th centuries horned hand charms (the mano cornuto) were used for magical protection against evil; in the 16th century in Spain the Higa, an ivory charm pendant in the shape of a closed hand showing the thumb between the index and the middle fingers, was a symbol of regality and power. Berber women traditionally used the Hand of Fatima as an ornament but it later became an abstract symbol made of silver, lapis lazuli, coral and enamel.
Due to these connections with the magic and irrational world, the hand and its “mould”, the glove, have played a remarkable role in the Surrealist Imagery. Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, was heavily influenced by Surrealists and started using hand charms in her accessories collections. In 1934 she presented her Fall/Winter collection where miniature hands were used as belt buckles, bag closures, buttons of coats, pins for jackets and cloaks. Among her friends there were some artists and photographers who used her miniature hands as objets trouvÃ©s. In the same year, as an accompaniment to an essay by George Hugnet, the iconic magazine Minotaure published a series of photographs portraying delicate hand gestures reminiscent of Victorian amulets. Jean Schlumberger, the talented jewellery designer for Schiaparelli, inspired by those photographs, created some ceramic ear clips for the 1936-37 collections.
Brooch — Elsa Schiaparelli — 1937-38 (Leslie Chin Collection)
Brooch — Jean Schlumberger for Elsa Schiaparelli — Winter 1936-37 (Mark Walsh Collection)
In 1937 Man Ray made use of them for one of his most famous portraits of Dora Maar, while Claude Cahun took some similar photographs to illustrate the collection of poems by Lise Deharme entitled Le Coeur de Pic. In that year Man Ray did the drawings for the book Les Mains Libres by Surrealist poet Paul Ã‰luard, and among others he drew a hand holding a rose identical to a Schiaparelli brooch. Schiaparelli was also fascinated by gloves, which she embellished with red snakeskin nails, gold claws, butterflies, golden crests on green nappa leather, turning the moving fingers into mysterious creatures. Undeniably she was influenced by her friend MÃ©ret Oppenheim and her embroidered gloves with blue veins and fur fingerless gloves (mitaines) with fake fingers.
The symbolism of hands in the work of Elsa Schiaparelli is part of her personal, ironic apparel revolution: her dresses are no longer ruled by men’s desire, they start portraying female taboos such as childhood, eroticism, the double, the pagan goddesses. The hands around the waist or along the coat closure, the red nails, the false claw nails, all these features affect the culture of appearance and the meaning of clothing and body adornments distorting and mocking them.
Portrait of Dora Maar — Man Ray — 1936
Nowadays other fashion designers have included the hand in their collections, even though hardly as a symbol, more often as a means of dress deconstruction (e.g. the waistcoat with white gloves by Martin Margiela from the Spring/Summer 2001 collection) or as an ironic padding (e.g. Comme des GarÃ§ons Fall/Winter 2007 collection). Schiaparelli is on another level: in her work the hand is not a simple decoration but an ancestral symbol also linked to the subconscious. It is not just fashion: Elsa Schiaparelli shuffled the cards of a language that body, dresses and ornaments had already been speaking since time immemorial.
Gloves — Elsa Schiaparelli — Summer 1939 (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Gloves — Elsa Schiaparelli — Winter 1936-37 (Philadelphia Museum of Art)