Chironomia (the Language of Gesture)

Hand Gestures in Iconography

The classical Greeks devised a code of hand gestures that were used by orators and rhetoricians when they gave speeches to the senate, the agora, public audiences and in the classroom.  “Chironomia” is the art of gesticulations or hand gestures in supporting oratory, or conveyance of unspoken meaning understood by the audience.

As we know, Romans adopted many of the traditions of classical antiquity and it is possible that early Christians modified and used some of these gestures for the same purpose.

Here are several common hand gestures and their respective meanings, used in traditional iconography:

ICXC – Christ’s Initials

In addition to shaping letters, the gesture of blessing made by Christ also conveys doctrinal truths. The three fingers used to spell the I and X also represent the Trinity, the Unity of One God in three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Bringing the thumb and the ring finger together to touch not only forms the letter C, but also symbolizes the Incarnation, the union of the divine and human natures in the person of Christ.

One of the most commonly used hand gestures depicted in Eastern Orthodox icons is the “blessing hand.” As you can see in the photo above, it represents a specific arrangement of fingers that form the letters “IC XC,” which stands for the first and the last letters of the Greek words IHCOYC XPICTOC, meaning Jesus Christ. Thus, the hand that blesses reproduces the Name of Jesus. However, since this gesture comes from ancient times, it is often associated with classical oratory and means that the speaker is going to say something important, which can also be applicable to all icons of Jesus Christ and His saints.

ICXC – Pantocrator’s Blessing

Pointing Out Specific Text

Used to point out specific parts of text.

This gesture, bringing the middle and ring finger to the thumb, is used to point to or emphasize specific parts of text, or a message.

Denotes the Beginning of Speech or Sermon

Speaker

Palms of the Righteous

Holy Blessed Matrona of Moscow
The open palm means trust, sincerity and absence of evil.

Those who lived holy and righteous lives are often depicted with a characteristic gesture: an open palm facing the one praying. The palms are open to viewer, to denote sincerity and the absence of secret evil thoughts or feelings in the saint’s heart.

Open Palms at Chest – Oranta

Open palms held at chest height have two meanings. The first one is a prayer to God; the second is the acceptance of grace.

Hand on Heart

The hand-on-heart gesture means that the depicted person spent much time in heartfelt prayer to God, which puts them on a par with ancient hermits. It means that the Saint pictured succeeded with prayer through heart.

Arms Crossed on Chest

This gesture looks like the St. Andrew’s cross and is similar to the one used by Eastern Orthodox Christians when going up to receive Holy Communion. It means repentance, submission, humility and faithfulness to Christ. It also means that the Saint has endured the test. An example of this gesture is this icon of St. Mary of Egypt, whose ascetic life was a feat of repentance.

Raised Index Finger

In ancient times, this may have meant criticism. Ultimately, it was an attempt to gain the audience’s attention.

Chirologia, 1644

Chirologia, 1644

For more information on Chironomia (in general and not specific to iconography), click to view a reference from 1644 written by John Bulwar called Chirologia, which explores the intuitive form of communication through gesture.