the pz gesture of the lactating goddess Table of contents

Abstract & Preface

poetry by
Adrienne Rich

Chapter I
The hand of "El caballero de la mano al pecho"

Chapter II
Iconographical sources of nursing and nursing gestures in pre-Christian and non-Christian cultures

Chapter III
Iconographical sources of nursing and nursing gestures in Christian cultures

Chapter IV
Breast-feeding forms in the Renaissance

Chapter V
Literary sources of lactating goddesses

Chapter VI
The meaning of the Ostentatio Mammarum
and the pseudo- zygodactylous gesture

Illustrations & Bibliography

Biographical sketch



The hand gesture in El Greco's painting "El caballero de la mano al pecho", here called the "pseudo-zygodactylous" gesture, is traced, through comparing similar gestures and iconographical scenes, to breastfeeding images of goddesses, e.g., the Virgin Mary, Hera, and Isis, nursing male infants. As theology and artistic stylization develop in Christianity in the medieval and Renaissance periods, the gesture's occurrence is noted in paintings of the Virgin Mary in a nursing attitude but without a child, in a position of maternal care for mortals seeking heavenly salvation. The gesture later appears in art without a nursing context, used by saintly characters and, ultimately, secular figures such as El Greco's "Caballero". The gesture's symbolic meaning is extrapolated from these religious contexts, both artistic and literary: maternal (goddess) power and influence over the fate of human beings (mortals) in the afterworld, and men's desire to secure immortality through symbolic control of female deities, which ensures continued access to salvation (immortality).


In 1980 i began a year-long course of Hispanic Studies at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid which included a class on the History of Art in Spain. We covered the entire evolution of art in Spain, from paleolithic cave paintings through Picasso. Midway through the class we studied the art of El Greco, and one day the professor showed a slide of El Greco's "El caballero de la mano al pecho". The hand gesture in the painting intrigued me, so i stayed afterwards to ask the professor what it symbolized. Two of theories he offered are included in the text, but neither explained the gesture to my satisfaction; both left out an explanation of the gesture's occurrence in El Greco's other paintings, not to mention its frequent occurrence throughout the Renaissance. From that point on i looked for examples of the gesture in other artwork, searching for a reason behind the gesture's use. I hope that the theory offered in this thesis gives a broader, more coherent explanation of the gesture as it occurs in Renaissance and later religious art.