tpkunesh, the Pseudozygodactylous gesture of the lactating goddess: evolution and migration ©1990 Minneapolis •
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


El Greco's painting of 'el Caballero de la mano al pecho'

el Caballero de la mano al pecho
by El Greco / Domenikos Theotoucopoulos

Chapter I:
the Hand of "El caballero de la mano al pecho"

In Madrid's Museo del Prado hangs the world's largest collection of El Greco's paintings. Among them, in a room alongside other portraits, hangs the painting known only as "El caballero de la mano al pecho"--the gentleman with his hand on his chest.

The purpose of this study is to determine the meaning of the gesture used in the portrait of "El caballero de la mano al pecho." This essay is an iconographical analysis of the hand sign viewed from historical and religious perspectives. As in the analysis of the cultural anthropologist, the final conclusion can only be inferred from the material since the analysis deals with the art, the history, and the religions of centuries past, and because it deals with an artifact of symbolic communication--a hand gesture--as old as art, though forgotten today. This study also seeks to establish the status of the gesture within the Christian economy of salvation and its iconology, linking the gesture to the breastfeeding of goddesses, then progressively to their ability to bestow eternal life through their milk, to the gradual evolution of the gesture away from the naked breast, and its migration to men for their use in seeking maternal salvation.


Around the year 15781 in Toledo or Madrid, Spain, the painter Doménikos Theotokópoulos (δομηνικος θεοτοκοπουλος), originally from Crete, and known as "El Greco" (the Greek), created a painting that is now called "El caballero de la mano al pecho" -- "The man with his hand on his chest." The painting is a half-body portrait on a dark background of an unknown bearded Spanish gentleman dressed in basic black with white lace trim at his wrist and neck, adorned with a gold pendant and the gold hilt of a sword high up on his left side, with his right hand on his chest. There is a single peculiarity about this painting: the gesture of his right hand -- fingers splayed except for the third and fourth digits which are tight together. These two fingers are painted together in such a way that -- were it not so odd -- one would assume that they were physically joined. This peculiarity, his hand gesture, "ha hecho correr ríos de tinta"2 and begs for further investigation.


The hand gesture of El Greco's caballero has not gone unnoticed by art historians of the past, although their efforts have been directed solely at examining the work of El Greco, and even then not as a whole but concentrating primarily on this masterpiece, to wrest the enigmatic meaning of the caballero's oddly spaced and placed hand. Historians of Spanish art have indulged themselves in this speculation regarding the meaning of this man's gesture: "His hand is placed on his breast as if to affirm some fact of great importance, holding his heart as witness to some oath. If the pose is unusual, even stranger is the manner in which this hand is placed, with the two middle fingers joined together, whereas the others are spread out fanwise."3 Since there are no art manuals that describe this specific gesture or what it signified, its meaning and latent symbolism must be deduced from secondary sources and then can only be theoretically supposed. To go any farther we must then first assume that the caballero's hand gesture, i.e., the stylized manner of splaying the thumb, the second, and the fifth fingers, while keeping the third and fourth joined, has some significance other than being simply a hand on a chest. Our mundane experience tells us that these fingers, given both their unusual natural occurrence and their singular repetition in certain artists' work, are not pathologically joined but are displayed thus as an artistic device -- be it spontaneously mechanical or philosophically symbolic. This artistic technique, used by both Titian and El Greco and many others before them, leads one to presume that the gesture is not merely an infrequent oddity but a content-laden symbol: a communication of a larger abstract idea through a smaller physical sign.4 A method of analyzing the symbolic communication from painter to painting to viewer can be constructed by using Victor Turner's three classes of data that inform the "structure and properties of ritual symbols:
  1. external form and observable characteristics;
  2. interpretations offered by specialists and by laymen;
  3. significant contexts largely worked out by the anthropologist."5

By covering these three areas within a historical context we should be able to arrive at the meaning that lays behind the hand. However, since the gesture has already been practically introduced for its study in relation to the single painting in question and for the purposes of this paper, the order of Turner's methodology will be modified by reversing numbers (1) and (2).

Hypotheses of the hand gesture

Only two basic hypotheses regarding the hand gesture's meaning have been presented, both from this century and both based more on desires to decode this one single instance of the hand gesture rather than to provide an analytical discussion of the phenomenon of the gesture as a whole -- a classic example of not being able to see the forest for the trees. The two theories are:
  1. that the hand gesture is a secret sign indicating that the gentleman is a Marrano -- a crypto-Jew who accepted Christian baptism in order to remain in Spain after the Catholic Kings' order of 1492 that all Jews leave Spain; and
  2. that the gesture indicates a Loyolan/Jesuit spirituality that calls for the sinner to place his/her hand on their chest after committing a sin as a sign of moral pain. Both of these theories have been discussed at length in academic circles without, however, formal acceptance of either, though at least one academic allows that the hand "assumes the function of an important communication, a personal avowal."6

El Greco

El Greco's personal history is important to the issue here. Doménikos Theotokópoulos was born around 1541 on the island of Crete which had been under Venetian control since the year 1204. At about the age of twenty, already a painter of religious icons, he left Crete to further his art studies in Venice where many of his Cretan compatriots dedicated themselves to painting the madonneri, becoming painters of the Madonna in imitation of St. Luke.7 We can safely assume, judging from his Orthodox cultural background and early paintings, that he was already quite adept at painting religious figures and icons. From Venice he moved to Rome (ca. 1570) where his painting style vastly improved, thanks to the influence of Italian masters such as Tiziano and Tintoretto. Because of the Italians' difficulty in pronouncing his Greek proper name, he came to be known simply as "Il Greco" -- the Greek. Leaving Rome and Italy for unknown (but dubious) reasons, Il Greco came to Madrid where the Italian definite article "Il" was changed to "El," hence "El Greco." It was in Spain in the latter half of the 16th century, during the reign of Felipe II (who raised Spain to its zenith in art, geo-political influence, and religious fervor), that El Greco developed into the greatest mannerist painter. He lived and painted in Toledo, the capital of Catholic Spain from 1085 to 1561, the See of the Spanish Roman Catholic Church, and the former religious center of Sepharda, Jewish Spain. Toledo was also the financial capital of the Empire in which the Jews thrived (in a relative sense) under the protection of the financially weak kings until 1492 when they were expelled en masse from Spain. El Greco himself was a Catholic -- Eastern Orthodox by birth and tradition, and Roman by necessity, if not by desire. It was the time of the Reformation and the Inquisition: the northern Mediterranean Catholic countries were at war with the other European powers that denied the authority of the Church, the leadership of the Pope, and the quasi-deification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this age El Greco painted his religion: Annunciations, the birth of Jesus, the Holy Family, Crucifixions, Resurrections, Ascensions, and literally hundreds of apostles and Christian saints. Very rarely did he ever stray to paint in the secular field, save for portraits and a few incidental commissions. Even these were touched with a religious mysticism, the kind exemplified by the two most famous Catholic mystics of the time, Teresa de Jesús and Juan de la Cruz.

Crypto-Jewish secret

The first hypothesis proposes that the hand gesture is a type of Jewish secret sign that was used among the crypto-Jews (i.e., false Christians) of 16th century Toledo to recognize each other, much like a secret masonic handshake. This meaning of the hand of El Greco's caballero is elaborated by Ralph Oppenhejm in his book Spain in the looking-glass (1956):

... But there may be an invisible key in the hands of his sitters--those speaking hands, which sign an El Greco painting more explicitly than his own name. That curiously precious gesture, at whose odd beauty one is continually starting in his portraits, is a gesture borrowed from Jewish ritual. When the Jews--especially the Sephardic Jews--are reading the Amidah, the eighteen prayers, or pronouncing a blessing, they always hold their hands in this curious way. No doubt many of the noblemen immortalized by El Greco were marranos--Christians by compulsion, secretly practising the Jewish faith in which they had grown up. Or was it simply from old habit that sincere New-Catholics spread out their fingers precisely as their forefathers had done, back to the time when they used to stand and pray in the Temple at Jerusalem? Or who can say that this bewitching gesture was not the artist's own patrimony, distributed by his bounty to all comers.8

Difficulties in accepting the theory that the hand gesture may have been a covert sign of identification or a remnant gesture copied from Jewish ritual, used among the secret Jews (the crypto-Jews/false Christians, conversos, and marranos) of Spain, stem from the fact that no such sign is recorded or alluded to in any of the wealth of Sephardic and kabbalistic texts from this period. Art historians have dismissed Oppenhejm's thesis, calling his ideas "hipótesis sin fundamento, pero que forman parte de una conciencia general sobre la raíz oriental, antigua, de Theotocópuli."9 A more caustic version of this denial is also offered: "El sefardita no dejó nada de su concepto de la vida ... ni artisticamente en el pueblo español ... ni en la poesía ni en el arte español."10 Although Oppenhejm's thesis may be rejected on the lack of positive evidence that El Greco was Jewishor that his patrons were Jewish, or despite the fact that he lived in the judería (the old Jewish barrio of Toledo), there is more significant negative evidence indicating that the hand gesture is not Jewish. In only one instance has the gesture of the caballero been used in a specifically Jewish painting, and that in a twentieth-century drawing.11 Its absence in Hebrew literature and history is proof itself. Oppenhejm most likely confuses the specific finger positions in the gestures of the Amidah and the blessing. What he probably refers to historically is the rite of the Priestly Benediction (dukhenen),12 also called the Kohanic Blessing -- the ritual blessing prayed over the congregation by a member of the priestly caste of the Kohanim in which "the hands are held touching at the thumbs with the first two fingers of each hand separated from the other two, thus forming a sort of fan."13 the hebrew letter shin The blessing begins with the word "shalom" -- "peace," which itself begins with the hebrew letter shin, composed of three vertical strokes and one horizontal stroke below joining them: ˘ or ˘. The blessing is pronounced with each of the hands formed into a shin, touching forefingers and thumbs, second and third fingers joined, fourth and fifth fingers joined, with the arms raised over the head, traditionally covered by a shawl. US Veterans Administration gravestone symbol - Kohen handsThis gesture has been inscribed on Jewish tombstones throughout Europe,14 used for centuries as "cosmic symbols,"15 and even in contemporary society as "an ancient matriarchal sign for strength and power."16 The kohanic blessing has most recently been popularized by the extraterrestial humanoid character "Spock" in the American television series "Star Trek." Leonard Nimoy, the actor who developed and portrayed the half-Homo Sapien, half-Vulcan character 'Spock,' was raised an orthodox Jew. Nimoy states in his autobiography that he adopted the greeting, "Live long and prosper," and its accompanying one-handed "Vulcan salute," from the Kohanic blessing's shin, taken from his orthodox Jewish heritage.17 In the larger realm, there is no letter or religious gesture, Hebrew or otherwise, similar to the splayed hand in El Greco's painting. The caballero's stylized gesture is actually non-existent in the known Hebrew tradition of the 16th century, whereas the gesture of the Kohanic blessing existed for centuries prior to El Greco. Given the lack of graphic corroboration and the similarity of the Kohanic blessing, Oppenhejm's hypothesis should be discounted as a case of mistaken identity.

Jesuit penance

The second hypothesis was first presented by Cassou in his 1934 work, El Greco:

Este gesto, repetido tan a menudo, es el que San Ignacio de Loyola recomienda. ... Mejor que los puños en el mentón o los indices en la sien, este gesto sereno de calma denuncia toda la agitación de la vida interior, al mismo tiempo que la comprime y se impone con una fuerza incontrastable sobre todos los secretos de la conciencia ...18

Antonia Vallentin, in her book (1954) on the life of El Greco, wrote:

This gesture is so uncommon that generations of historians have tried to decipher its meaning. Is it a ritual sign, only intelligible to the initiated? A gesture recommended by St. Ignatius Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises? "This consists, each time one falls into sin, in laying the hand on the breast whilst inciting one's inner self to grief."19

Veronica de Osa later popularized the idea in her novel, The mystic finger symbol of El Greco (1956):

"Who is this gentleman?"
"Nobody--I call the canvas 'The Cavalier with his Hand on his Chest.' To me he is simply, if you will pardon me, the type of Spanish nobleman of our time, a fighting man, and a lover of beautiful women." ...
... But it was the hand that was prominent in the picture. Señor de las Cuevas asked, "The hand does seem strange, with the thumb bent outwards, the exaggerated length of the fingers; why the unnatural pose of the fingers tightly closed, while the other fingers are spread out? Nobody ever holds his hand against his chest in this manner."
Greco was beginning to paint. "I should like Doña Jerónima [Señor de las Cuevas' daughter] to explain this."
"I thought it was a sign of secret understanding?"
"Speak up, daughter, you seem to know a lot of things your father has never heard before."
Said Jerónima, "This gesture is recommended by Ignacio de Loyola in the first of the four notes of his 'Spiritual Exercises.' One hand is placed against the chest each time a sin is committed, and thus we symbolize that there is suffering in the heart."
"It is as Doña Jerónima says. In my youth some of the basic teachings of the Jesuits were brought to my knowledge. Later, in Rome, I studied Ignacio de Loyola's 'Spiritual Exercises.' At that time, Rome was strongly influenced by his teaching, quite the contrary to Venetian fashion, where gaiety was the rule."20

There has been no official response to this hypothesis in the academic literature regarding El Greco, yet this second theory is far more general and ambiguous in its language and application. It is, however, as wanting of proof as the first. There are four major problems to confront before accepting the Loyolan theory for this gesture. First, approximately thirty years separated the publication of the "Spiritual exercises," published by Iñigo de Oñaz y Loyola/Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus/ Jesuit order in 1548, and the painting of "El caballero de la mano al pecho," painted by Doménikos Theotokópoulos/El Greco around the year 1578. El Greco's library is still extant and does not contain a copy of Loyola's "Spiritual exercises," which would likely exist if indeed it exerted such a great influence on El Greco's work.

Second is the fact that Loyola fails to specify the posture of the fingers in his book: it is simply to "place his hand upon his breast."21 This same gesture as specified by the "Spiritual exercises" is referred to in the 1771 diary of the early American protestant minister, the Reverend Ezra Stiles, who described himself in the portrait as posed "in a Teaching Attitude, with the right hand on the Breast."22 Loyola's "hand on the breast" is by far too general of a description to use in explaining the particular gesture used by El Greco. Thirdly, none of the above works quote the source in toto; all three leave off the final line of the paragraph in which Loyola further states that this gesture of penance can be done "even in the presence of many others without their perceiving what he is doing,"23 correlating with Jesus' commandment in Matthew 6:1, "Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven."24 It would seem that painting a gentleman in such a flagrant act of penitential piety would ill-behoove the "mystic" practitioner of the Exercises in his attempt at attaining spiritual salvation. Jesus' statement, with Loyola's later personal confirmation of the same pietistic principle, would seem to prohibit the outward display of the act of penance in a painting. If the gesture was so defined and acknowledged by such a wide body of believers in Spain as the Jesuits, its public display would run counter to Loyola's dictates. It is thus more improbable that the caballero's gesture is that of Loyolan penance.

And finally, the Jesuit foundation of the gesture of the caballero would most probably have a universal application within the artwork of El Greco that would carry the same theological sense or feeling throughout its usage. The painter, however, used the hand symbol in numerous paintings almost exclusively with Jesus, Mary, and the saints (see below). The caballero, a mortal man, however, was born a sinner and, by definition as a human being, remained a sinner throughout his life. In the Judeo-Christian tradition humanity sins, not God. In Christianity Jesus, being God himself incarnated, could not and did not sin, and Mary, the virgin Mother of God (Theotokos: God-bearer) is said to have been free from all sin (including original sin) herself. Thus, any hand sign used to symbolize suffering and regret of sin would not be properly used among the non-sinning deities. Whereas there are many symbols of godhood used among the mortal followers of the faith, the Christ Jesus never assumed the most basic human condition of sin. It could be argued that in the paintings of El Greco Jesus and Mary use the caballero's gesture in empathy for the sinning mortals. Both would then be communicating, in effect, that they also feel the pain that sin creates in the hearts of men and women--a rare phenomenon of deities empathizing with humankind's worst quality. Loyola's "hand" is by far too broad a category under which to cover the caballero's and others' distinctive gesture.

Other speculations

Further speculations as to the meaning of the caballero's hand offer vaguer, more nebulous interpretations resulting in further and ultimate mystification rather than a set of ideas based on any coherent methodology. In this manner the gesture used by El Greco in his painting becomes trivialized and relegated to the status of an unknowable psychological factor, open to any and all interpretations. Because of the lack of evidence in this case, art historians have couched their speculations of the hand's symbolic meaning in arcane and metaphysical terms: "a sign of secret understanding,"25 "as if to affirm some fact of great importance, holding his heart as witness to some oath,"26 "indicates subjugation of the body to the will of Another,"27 "some ritual sign ...[of] a man surrendering and guarding his soul at the same time, this gesture of possession of himself and also of dialogue, ... a certain fashion of aristocracy,"28 "a picturesque recourse for chromatic contrasts expressing 'an exaltation of the I (ego),'"29 a "serene gesture of calm [that] denounces all the agitation of the interior life ... as if this were something that could be communicated with the hand,"30 "accentuates the spiritual meaning of the image [which] reflects the atmosphere of fanatical religious zeal in his [El Greco's] adopted country,"31--all ethereal and psychological attempts at an explanation, none of which offer any direction to a historical study of the gesture outside of the context of El Greco's paintings.

Having examined the "interpretations offered by specialists and laymen" for the reason and meaning of the hand in El Greco's painting of "El caballero de la mano al pecho," the hypotheses proposed are found to be wanting in substantiating evidence that would materially link the gesture with a culture or body of literature. The main problem lies in the art historian's narrow view of the phenomenon, which was limited to the single painting of El Greco. It is now time to examine the "external form and observable characteristics" in order to begin the examination of the gesture in a broader historical perspective.

External form and observable characteristics of the gesture

We can now acknowledge that the gesture of "El caballero de la mano al pecho" by El Greco cannot be analyzed within the hermetic restrictions of painting and painter: the fields of investigation must be broadened to examine the incidence and appearance of the gesture in other areas, from other times, from different cultures.


The gentleman in "El caballero de la mano al pecho" is most often understood to be a normally developed human being. The apparent asymmetry of the caballero's sloping left shoulder, coupled with the location of his sword high up on his waist, might indicate an injury or a possible malformation of the shoulder and back. These two variances from the normal human phenotype have led Angulo Iñiguez to assert "that the man's left hand is missing and the left shoulder is much lower than the right due to a deformity at birth rather than to an injury sustained in battle."32 Given this theory it may not be overly presumptuous to postulate that the same congenital deformity that may have caused the asymmetrical shoulders may also have been connected with a genetic deformation of the caballero's hand. From this possibility it is then a logical progression to inquire whether the hand itself may have been a physical anomaly. In medical terms the hand appears to be a perfect specimen of zygodactyly, the most common and mildest syndactylous malformation in which the third and fourth fingers are fused or webbed together. Syndactyly refers in general to the digital malformation in which fingers or toes grow together, joined by soft tissue33 with an incidence of approximately one per 3000 births in the male population.34 "Zygodactylism"--a word composed from the Greek roots zugon: 'yoke' or 'joining,' as in a "zygote" (a fertilized egg composed of ovum and sperm cells), and daktulos: 'digit,' as in finger or toe--refers to a form of syndactylism (sun-: 'with,' 'together') the digital malformation of the hand or foot caused by genetic mutation.

complex syndactylism aka zygodactylism

Fig. 2. Zygodactyly35

Drawings and photographs of the true zygodactylous hand closely resemble the hand of the caballero in El Greco's painting. If, like his shoulders and the location of his sword, the caballero's gesture was unique, a strong case could be made for the theory that the artist painted the portrait of an unfortunate Spanish nobleman born with two apparent congenital birth defects, the zygodactylous hand being the more obvious. That people with physical abnormalities were not uncommon subjects of the epoch's painters can be testified to by the well-known paintings of Velázquez who painted, among other subjects, "The bearded woman" and a number of the royal court's dwarfs. Along with other proposed explanations for the gesture's existence, however, the hypothesis that the gesture is physiological, not symbolic, the result of a malformation of the gentleman's hand, has no evidence to support it. The asymetric shoulder is easily explained as a stylistic perspective through comparison with El Greco's other portraits of Spanish gentlemen.36 But more significantly the gentleman's hand, when compared with the opus of El Greco, is not unique, much less rare. In more than twenty other paintings by El Greco this same gesture of the splayed hand with the third and fourth digits joined, is easily recognized and shared by a cast of characters including Jesus, Mary, his mother, Mary Magdalene, Saint John, Saint Ildefonso, Saint Dominic, Saint Francis of Assisi, an angel, and a toledan priest.37 It could hardly be argued that all of these figures shared the same congenital defect with the caballero and neither should it be accepted that the gentleman's hand gesture is a special case of zygodactylism from which it multiplied into use in other paintings of El Greco. Whichever painting by El Greco was the first to incorporate this stylized gesture, it nonetheless post-dated the painting entitled "Temptation of Christ"38 (1540-45) by his Venetian teacher, Tiziano, by some thirty years, and came more than fifty years after the same gesture's use in native Spanish painting such as that of Yáñez de Almedina in his "La Anunciación."39 Hence all factors point to the conclusion that this gesture is symbolic, not natural, and used as a means of artistic expression. (In addition to European art, sources from the East and South have also been researched in order to find any possible connection among ritualized or symbolic hand signs between the Eastern and Western hemispheres. The different mudras of northern and southern Buddhism offer an elaborate encyclopedia of hand signs,40 but none resemble the splayed hand with the third and fourth digits joined together. Likewise other non-Western and non-Buddhist cultures have established secular and religious hand signs, but neither do any of these resemble--even vaguely--the caballero's hand.)


This specific hand gesture has been identified as a distinct form of gesture found within Western art and should be given its own proper name to fit within the nomenclature of gestures. The previous introduction of the term "zygodactylism" offers us a more precise nom de plume for the gesture that will allow us to identify it specifically, apart from the general description of "the caballero's hand" or "the splayed hand." We shall from here on refer to the gesture portrayed in the painting "El caballero de la mano al pecho" by El Greco, i.e., the splayed hand with the third and fourth fingers joined together, as the "pseudo-zygodactylous gesture"--"pseudo-" for false, indicating that the gesture resembles zygodactylism but only superficially. For ease in reading the abbreviation "p/z" shall also be used; fingers also shall be referred to being numbered consecutively, beginning with the thumb as the first finger, index as second, and so on. Thus the classical p/z gesture of this study will be defined in full as: first finger (thumb) splayed outwards, second finger ('index') splayed, the third and fourth fingers (middle and 'ring') held tightly together, and the fifth finger ('little') splayed away from the fourth. Distance of the first two fingers from the joined third and fourth fingers is necessary for this definition, with some laxity (as we shall see later) given to the fifth finger's distance from the latter two. The appearance of the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture can also occur naturally in society without a symbolic reference while the hand is at rest, or in art as a conscious or unconscious foreshortening or lessening of the fingers' normal spread.41 Naturally occurring p/z gestures are innately the result of an individual's particular muscular development in the hand, caused by the normal tension of the adducting interosseous muscles of the fourth finger which draw it inwards toward the third, middle finger.42 Examples of this arbitrary form of pseudo-zygodactylism are not uncommon43 but do not relate to the topic here.

Broader incidence and context of the gesture

Having described the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture as a natural physiological phenomenon, and acknowledging the possibilities of its occurrence in art, we can move on to examine the inidence of the p/z gesture in a broader historical context. Within the work of El Greco alone the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture occurs frequently, favoring the use of the right hand alone in two-thirds of his paintings. The p/z hand is almost always placed on the center of the chest, save for "Christ bearing the cross" in which both hands, splayed in the p/z fashion, embrace (rather than carry or support) the cross. Even then, the right hand is chest level and not far from its common mark of the center chest. In El Greco's paintings of the Virgin Mary, however, the hand is generally--and curiously--off-center. Whereas her hand may be adrift in a vague posture, it is splayed, as are the hands of the other figures who have the p/z hand on their chests. In only one of his paintings, "The Holy Family," does the Virgin Mary have her hand centrally placed on her chest. Here she is breast-feeding the baby Jesus who himself holds his mother's fingers of the p/z gesture. Up to this point art historians have approached the work of El Greco in hopes of finding the enigmatic meaning of the hand gesture and have formed broad theories regarding its application. It has not yet been asked why no other painter depicted crypto-Jews or the Loyolan gesture of penance. The past investigation has taken place in a vacuum of history, and we must break with this vacuum to examine sources farther afield that will lead us toward another path of interpretation. El Greco was a painter of religious images and used the gesture in so many of his religious paintings that one might begin to suspect that the p/z gesture may have broader religious meaning; thus the fields of religious artwork need to be examined systematically. El Greco's painting "El caballero de la mano al pecho" is displayed in the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain. The art collection of the Prado is itself a vast and elementary resource to use in order to begin a cursory search for the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture outside of the El Greco collection. There are six paintings in the Prado, including the "Caballero de la mano al pecho," whose figures employ the p/z gesture:
  1. Mary nursing Jesus in "Rest on the escape to Egypt"/"Descanso en la huida a Egipto" by Gerard David (1450-1523);
  2. Mary squirting milk to the souls in purgatory in "La Madona del sufragio" or "La maternidad espiritual de María" or "La Virgen dando su leche a las almas del purgatorio" by Pedro Machuca (1517);44
  3. an unknown Spanish gentleman, "El caballero de la mano al pecho" by El Greco (ca. 1578)
  4. Juno holding her breast for Hercules in "The birth of the Milky Way" by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640);
  5. Mary with her hand to her breast before Jesus in "María, intercesora ante el Hijo" by Mateo Cerezo († 1666);45 and
  6. Bernard receiving milk from the Virgin Mary in "La visión de San Bernardo" by Bartolomé Murillo, (1665-75).46

Gerard David - Descanso en la huida a Egipto Pedro Machuca - the Virgin and Souls in Purgatory El Greco's painting of 'el Caballero de la mano al pecho' Rubens - Birth of the Milky Way Murillo - the Vision of St Bernard
1 2 3 4 5

The first two paintings were created before El Greco was born in 1541, one by a Dutch painter and one by a Spaniard from Toledo. Five of the six depict explicitly religious scenes and all of these five have some proximal relation to a woman's breast. Of these five, all offer an overt, almost blatant display of the woman's breast: four in which the woman is pressing or touching her breast with the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture, four in which the woman is holding her exposed breast for nursing (lactation), four in which the Virgin Mary is an active primary or secondary figure, one in which Juno is the primary figure, and one in which a male saint uses the p/z gesture on his chest as he receives Mary's breast-milk. Only one of these six paintings--all of which use the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture--that of the caballero, has no action, no woman, no breast, no milk, and nobody else in the picture.

Preliminary hypothesis

In addition to their stylistic differences regarding the gesture, five of the six paintings share the primary theme of lactation in which breast-milk is transferred from a goddess to an immature god or adult human male, which also presupposes the overt display of the breast, or ostentatio mammarum. From this small arbitrary sampling an introductory hypothesis is proposed regarding the significance of the p/z gesture, that is: that the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture is a religious symbol signifying the giving--or requesting--of spiritual life as salvation or immortality used by males and females alike, based on the maternal relationship of mother and child in which the display of the breast and giving of breast-milk by the mother goddess means the gift of physical and metaphysical life to her child/ children. It will therefore be argued that the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture plays a significant role as a mode of communication in the hierarchical relationships within religious economies of spiritual salvation. From the above arbitrary sampling of paintings, further subdivisions of the general theme of lactation can be made by:
(a) type of contact, e.g,, breast/mouth, breast/hand, direct
     (body-body)/indirect (body-space-body),
(b) the receiver of milk,
(c) purpose of lactation, and
(d) number of individuals involved in the encounter.

Such a description of the lactation paintings by these subdivisions provides us with a better structural view of the paintings:

  1. direct (nipple to mouth) mother goddess to god-child nursing (maternal dyad) for physical nourishment;
  2. indirect (milk projected from breast through space to mouth/s) goddess to adult humans (multiple/communal dyad) for relief of their pain or to gain their salvation;
  3. direct/indirect goddess to unrelated human child nursing in order to make the child immortal and thereby into a god, and to spiritually adopt the child (spiritual dyad);47
  4. no contact, no milk expressed (no lactation) by the goddess who uses the gesture placed to her breast (exposed/unexposed) to intercede between a higher god and (the) human being/s to request life and salvation (triad); and
  5. indirect contact between goddess and a holy adult human male (saint) as a blessing, as symbolic adoption, and as an affirmation of the male's sanctity (spiritual dyad).

    Because the painting of the caballero has no lactation theme visible, an additional category after the others shall be assigned to it in order to qualify and open the search for the gesture outside of explicit lactation and in order to test the gestures that may appear against the relationship to lactation. Subdivisions of this theme of 'salvation gesture' will be: (a) gender of gesturer, (b) god/dess, 'saint'/demigod, or mortal (c) location and manner of placement of gesture to body (e.g., on chest, outwards to the side, etc.), (c) purpose of gesture, and (d) relationship to other individuals in the scene. Thus,

  6. pseudo-zygodactylous gesture, no lactation, no direct or indirect physical contact, and usually no other person present.

To test this hypothesis we shall examine relevant material relating to the physical and metaphysical aspects of breast-feeding, breast-milk, and breasts in both secular and religious literature and art. Images of lactation, the breast, and the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture in general will be examined for the manner of use of the p/z gesture and then juxtaposed alongside the subdivisions given above in order to determine whether, and if so, how, there is a corresponding relationship between the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture, lactation, and metaphysical life.

Regarding religion and myth

As demonstrated in the Prado sampling above, the p/z gesture may also be found in paintings commonly regarded as "mythological" as opposed to "religious." This distinction is made to separate the socially-accepted religious myth, called "religion," from the old, rejected religious myths of time gone by. The purpose of this paper is to examine the historical spectrum of religion for information relating the pseudo-zygodactylous gesture to breast-feeding and, as such, will attempt to maintain a respect to all cultures reviewed, regarding all religious literature and belief equally as myth. Thus the current cultural distinctions between Christian "saint" and the pagan "demigod," as well as between pagan "goddess" and Christian "mother of God" will not be respected in this essay when needed for comparison. This will necessitate referring to both Juno and the Virgin Mary alike as goddesses, and to Jesus and Hercules as gods. The acronyms "bce" and "ce," "before the common era" and "common era" respectively, will be used to symbolically provide an impartial description of events, still according to Western dating, in an attempt to define time apart from First World Christianity.

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

tpkunesh, the Pseudozygodactylous gesture of the lactating goddess: evolution and migration ©1990 Minneapolis •