The Ancient Origin of the Hand Gestures in Iconography


Take a look at iconography or religious depictions, and you’ll probably see the figures of Jesus Christ, saints, and angels making distinct hand gestures. You have seen them countless times before, but maybe the thought has never crossed your mind despite how commonplace they are. What exactly do these hand gestures common mean, and why are they there?

It turns out that the origins of these hand gestures dates back to all the way to the 5th century B.C., when the Classical Greeks developed a complex code-like system of hand gestures that were used by orators and rhetoricians when they gave speeches in the Senate, the agora, private audiences, and the classroom. Each gesture had a specific meaning and was used both by the speaker and in response by the audience. This system, called chironomia, was common and understood by almost everybody.

The oldest surviving icons were discovered in Rome, so its believed Orthodox iconographers adopted these hand gestures when depicting Jesus Christ, the saints, and angels. As Catholics, we know that in iconography of Jesus Christ, His right hand is often raised in a benediction. Whats the specific symbolism behind the benediction hand gesture?

The fingers spell out “IC XC,” a common four letter abbreviation of the Greek name for Jesus Christ. By Christ’s name do we receive our blessings.

“At the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” – Philippians 2:10


Another common hand gesture found in iconography has even deeper symbolism. The three fingers attest to the Trinity: Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. The touching finger and thumb spell out C for Christ, but also represent the Incarnation in the joining of both Christ’s Divine and Human natures.



    • If you watch Elvis when he sings, every song he is holding his right hand the exact same way as Jesus is. Check it out on Utube.

  1. Very interesting. My son is learning about the
    Byzantine Iconoclasm time in World History.
    I will show him this, I
    Sure he will find it interesting.
    Thanks for sharing.

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  3. Thanks for the explanation. Your site is great.
    But the first image is not an ikon but a sentimental depiction of the Sacred Heart. I am not sure what gesture the image is depicting.

    We Latins need to be respectful of what is a true ikon by Eastern Christian standards and what is simply a religious picture. True ikons are venerated with kisses and incense at Eastern Christian Services…the religious images of the West are not venerated in such a way because they are naturalistic and don’t follow the canons of ikonography.

    I am glad that you included a true ikon and the meaning of the gesture with the Lord’s hand.