Not long ago I read that Sotheby’s is planning to sell a collection of photographs of hands amassed by businessman Henry Buhl in the 19 years since he paid $75,000 for his first: a photograph by Alfred Stieglitz of the hands of Georgia O’Keefe. Sothebys will sell 400 pieces from the Buhl collection on Dec. 12th and 13th, including the original Stieglitz image, which is estimated to go for over a million dollars.
Reading this delighted me, because I too have been collecting hands for years, (not photos, but all kinds of representations of hands.) None of my collection will ever be sold by Sotheby’s, but at least now I can consider my collection “art”.
Hands have always seemed to be spooky, magical, beautiful and filled with power. I looked up “hand” in “The Book of Symbols” from Taschen and learned that, on the walls of the cave of Pech-Merle in France, prehistoric artists outlined their hands in red ochre and black cinder over 20,000 years ago near drawn images of horses. Even at the dawn of human consciousness, the image of a hand seemed magical and important.
The prehistoric hand print in the cave reminded me of what a friend said after visiting a Hindu temple in India where the walls were marked with the red-henna handprints of young widows on the way to their death, because their religion decreed that they had to commit suttee— a widow must throw herself on the funeral pyre of her dead husband . “All those hands,” he said sadly. “They were so small and there were so many of them.”
Of course in a Hindu wedding the hands of the bride and groom (and the guests), lavishly decorated in henna with symbolic figures at the mehndi, are important symbols. Here are the hands of the bride, Neela, at the fabulous wedding in Jodhpur that we attended several years ago. The bride and the groom had their feet and hands decorated. Both their names were worked into the bride's design--which the groom had to discover for himself (If you want to know more, check out my post “The Hindu Wedding – At Last!”).
Here are some photos from my collection of hands. As I’ve mentioned before, I collect way too many things, and I love them all and consider them “found art.”
Probably the most valuable in my hand collection is the two-part Namaste altar (at top) showing the elephant god Ganesh and Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, each seated on their animal mounts (the rat and the owl). When the ivory hands are closed, they form the traditional greeting “Namaste” which means “”The divine in me honors and recognizes the divine in you.”
In the kitchen I have one wall covered with objects that incorporate hearts, (told you I collect too much) and several of these are the “heart-in-hand” design that I always thought was an early-American kind of valentine. But I discovered that the heart-in-hand is actually a symbol of charity, which originated with the Shaker sect: “Put your hands to work and your hearts to God.” It is also a symbol of the fraternal order of Odd Fellows.
The Victorians were very big on hands—in vases, pin dishes, calling cards, brooches and just about everything. Here is a small display case of tiny hands. The metal ones at the top are part of a drinking game. The one at the right reads “You pay -- Jack Daniels -- 1866”.
The largest hand in my collection is this one carved out of wood—it’s about two feet across and I put a carved wooden angel in it. (Did I mention that I also collect angels?) Next to it, to show its size, is an articulated hand of the kind used by artists as a model.
I absolutely love this “Hand of Christ” also known as “La Mano Poderosa”—“The most powerful hand”. It symbolizes the wounded hand of the crucified Christ with representations of the Holy Family on the fingers—Baby Jesus on the thumb (because he’s the most important), Virgin Mary on the index finger, followed by St Joseph, then St Anne and St. Joachim, Mary’s parents. The red marks represent Christ’s wounds.
All hands seem magical. The red one above, from Italy, is making a gesture meant (I think) to ward off the evil eye. The hand in the center is a reliquary that is holding a bone that is probably said to be from a saint and therefore efficacious in sending one's requests to Heaven.
It’s no wonder that we cherish plaster impressions of our toddlers' little hands and use fingerprints for identification—each hand is unique and hands can be as eloquent as faces.