Trying our Hand at Deciphering a Mysterious Painting

March 31 2010, 2:14pm

This alchemical painting of an open hand dates back to 1633 according to one of the many inscriptions on the canvas.  Measuring 49 inches high, 28 inches wide, this intriguing painting containings multiple cryptic Latin phrases and is of uncertain origin. According to Dr. George Szabo, former director of the Lehman collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,  the painting is probably a unique example of an instructive work of art that may have adorned the study of a Late Renaissance patron with a strong bent to the philosophic or scientific. The lettering and numerals, being highly accomplished ,leads one to believe that it probably was painted in one of the leading Italian centers with a strong tradition of calligraphy. The hand is pictured with a cuff at the wrist, meaning it is most likely secular, as the hand of God would not be clothed. The Latin phrase positioned at the bottom of the piece: “Omnia in mensum numo et ponderi disposuisti Sap. Cap 11.” is a quote from Wisdom 11: “You  arranged them all according to their weight and number”, which was famously to be taken up as a motto by Sir Isaac Newton. Also noted is the deliberate punning found within the language which was a didactic device used at the time.  The Latin phrase “Ancipit. a .B. anna 1633.” translates; “this painting was begun in ‘B’ in 1633″ lending the extraordinary image an even greater sense of mystery. The image of the hand formed part of the complex symbolic vocabulary of seventeenth century alchemical illustration. The true meanings of such “Hermetick Emblems” were known only to the initiated. Though it resembles various images of hands from the same period, such as those in Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis and in Agrippa von Nettesheim’s De occulta philosophia, such hands usually bear planetary symbols. We are still looking into what the word and number combinations on our painting mean, and would love you hear your ideas! A special thanks to Dr. George Szabo and Clare Gibson for their input.