Postures in prayer take many different forms across the world – and through time – often varying within a single religion. As an outward sign of inward thoughts, they naturally express a variety of messages that can range from humility to ecstasy and even intercession. This month’s tattoo, widely recognized as a common symbol of Christian prayer, owes an enormous debt to two very different sources: the medieval practice of vassalage and a certain German painter of the late 15th century.
Early Christian drawings or paintings of persons engaged in the act of prayer do not show them with their hands, palms together, raised slightly in front of them. In fact, this manner of praying is conspicuously absent. In the Christian wall paintings of the Roman catacombs, the dominant form of prayer shown is that of the orans position, standing with the hands spread in front and the palms facing up. It is a position still widespread in the iconography of the Eastern Christian churches and it was also described in Greek and Aramaic texts referring to Jewish prayer. As used in the catacombs, it has been interpreted both as a prayer position that suggested thanksgiving for being delivered from death and an earnest supplication to God for merciful judgement of the departed soul. However, if this shared position of prayer was so widespread and in use so early, where and when does the version in our tattoo become prevalent, at least in western Christianity?
Our only real clue, as faint and threadbare as it may be, is the following line from the Annals of the Kingdom of Franks, likely written by a scribe named Einhard (c. 775 to 850 AD), where he says that Duke Tassilo of Bavaria swears his allegiance to Pippin in 757 AD: “commending himself in vassalage between the hands.” Because such commendation ceremonies were actually painted in later history, we know that “between the hands” refers to the hand positions of the lord and vassal. The vassal would kneel before the lord in submission, with his hands, palms together, stretched out to the lord in front of him. The lord would then place his hands over the vassals hands, between his own, to indicate not only his acceptance of the vassal but also his dominance over him.
By the 15th century, this method of prayer was securely part of western Christian iconography. In the San Marco monastery of Florence, Fra Angelico (a Dominican friar and painter) was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici to paint a series of 43 frescoes that acted as a guide to the spiritual life. Not surprisingly, prayer figures largely, but in particular we see that Saint Dominic is painted kneeling in front of the crucifix, with his palms together in front, in a codified gesture of prostration meant to invoke an attitude of humility. In theory and in practice, this particular gesture had become an expected part of the ritual repertoire. As marvelous as these frescoes are, we must turn to another artist of this period for the exact image in our tattoo design.
Albrecht Dürer was a German painter and printmaker from Nuremberg whose artistic talent flourished at an early age – his first self-portrait was done when he was thirteen – and he was famous by his mid-twenties. Eventually he would journey to Italy (twice) and his reputation spread quickly throughout Europe. However, the now iconic image of “The Praying Hands,” created in Vienna in 1508, was never intended as a finished product. Dürer typically made large numbers of preparatory drawings, engravings, and paintings as studies for large commissioned works, and such was the case for the Heller Altarpiece, a triptych originally commissioned by a textile merchant in Frankfurt named Jakob Heller. Although the original painting was destroyed by fire, the praying hands are one such study (for an apostle in the finished piece). Possibly the most famous creation in his body of work, the praying hands have been described as “majestic” and “inspirational.” They are also a glimpse into the workshop of the master, as he worked and reworked such details to his satisfaction. Now reproduced on religious medallions, in devotional documents, and Christian tattoos worldwide, it is difficult to capture in words the appeal of this image but the painstaking attention to detail and the meticulous proportions of something so familiar as human hands make it difficult to see how it could be changed without detracting from its beauty.