Pointing and Touch

Of all the self-referential symbols an artist can use, the hand is paramount. It is often said that in the early Renaissance when artists were trying to gain recognition for themselves as intellectuals they played down the hand’s importance to their craft because it signalled manual labor. Paradoxically, though, the finger of God was also associated with creation, as in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam. An earlier, medieval illustration depicts the story of a miraculous image, worshipped in Gethsemane, of Mary and Christ impressed on stone and it shows God actually forming the sculpture with his own finger.1 Both ideas persisted but once the artist's finger was recognized by contemporaries as the equal of poets, the hand became an even more potent symbol for the craft of painting while the eye or forehead continued to symbolize the art's conception or intellectual content. Today we even say as evidence of art’s authenticity: “it was done by his or her hand.”  

From time to time artists, including Titian and Rembrandt, have painted with their fingers so touching a canvas, and not just pointing at it, has significance too.2 Dürer's earliest and remarkably precocious self-portrait, drawn when he was only thirteen, depicts him pointing with his finger, suggesting that even at that age he knew that a pointing-finger meant a painting-finger. Raphael's later Self-portrait with a Friend depicts the friend pointing, apparently out at us, but more truthfully at the reflected image of themselves in a mirror, his alter ego painting what we see. Take a look at examples of how hands point and touch a "painting" within the painting. You should study them carefully so you too can become used to recognizing the pointing finger - or touching hand - of the unseen painter.


1. Herbert L. Kessler, Seeing Medieval Art (Toronto: Broadview Art) 2004, p. 24

2. Harry Berger, Jr., Fictions of the Pose: Rembrandt Against the Italian Renaissance (Stanford University Press) 2000, p. 460; Daniel Arasse, “The Venus of Urbino, or The Archetype of a Glance” in Titian’s Venus of Urbino, ed. R. Goffen (Cambridge University Press) 1997, pp. 95-103

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