As virtually every ancient or medieval historian has done in their career, I will kick us off today with a scene from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. We cut to a general addressing a rather sparse audience: “Well, of course, warfare isn’t all fun. Right. Stop that! It’s all very well to laugh at the Military, but, when one considers the meaning of life, it is a struggle between alternative viewpoints of life itself, and without the ability to defend one’s own viewpoint against other perhaps more aggressive ideologies, then reasonableness and moderation could, quite simply, disappear. That is why we’ll always need an army, and may God strike me down were it to be otherwise.”
Well, don’t just stand there like you have never seen the hand of God before. We have! Depictions of the hand of god, the manus dei or dextera domini, became a frequent part of fourth century iconography. It served to visually advertise the divine legitimacy of a ruler, and thus elevate the actions of that ruler. Most scholars (Grierson and Mays 1992: 76) have seen the manus dei as a reference to the right hand of God in the Old Testament (e.g., Pss 18:35, 98.2) that was then picked up on and aesthetically represented in, for example, the synagogue paintings from Dura Europos in the mid 3rd c. CE.
Grierson and Mays also disavowed “pagan” antecedents; however, I would suggest that while representations of the hand of God alone may directly reference the Old Testament’s depiction of God’s divine will or intervention, there were a number of “pagan” antecedents in Roman art for the conferring of a crown by a deity or allegorical figure. As usual, the manus dei seen in Late Antiquity is a fusion of Judeo-Christian belief and traditional Roman displays of legitimate rule. The famous Gemma Augustea of the early Principate is a good example of the hovering crown conferred by the right hand–in this case Oikoumene (the inhabited world). The big difference is, of course, that we can see most of her rather than just her hand crowning Augustus.
It is in the fourth century that the manus dei imagery began to proliferate. A medallion of Constantius II (330 CE) is the first extant numismatic example (MacIsaac 1975: 324). Following the death of Constantine in 337 CE, the imagery of the hand of God was again used on coinage, this time to show Constantine ascending to heaven and being accepted by God. The hand of God used in an assumption is perhaps best represented in the ivory assumption of Jesus from Milan (now in Munich) dated to c.400 CE (I also particularly enjoy that Jesus is taking some reading with him up to heaven in this ivory).
Both uses of the hands–imperial approval and acceptance into heaven–continued on into the late fourth century, where Theodosius promoted it in his visual program as a way to legitimate his actions against heretics and non-Christians. In the late fourth and beginning of the fifth century, empresses also got in on the action. Consequently, we have a number of Byzantine Augustae being crowned by God with wreaths on coins. This trend would continue on in the East well into the high Byzantine empire.
Coins are a durable medium, but it seems there were other, more ephemeral representations of the manus dei as well. When the Goth general Gainas fell and his followers were slaughtered in 400, paintings were put up in the Circus Maximus at Rome depicting the scene with a hand of God intervening. A caption was placed next to it reading: “The hand of God driving off the barbarian” (Eunapius fr.68). If you are keeping score at home, the hand of God is now being manipulated to depict imperial legitimacy, to illustrate heavenly ascension, and to condone actions taken in warfare.
The use of the manus dei is not a surprising turn in late Roman imperial iconography, but it is an interesting one. Although rulers could themselves no longer be Gods, the hand of God could stand in and visually grant legitimacy to rulers. It was the next best thing to being divine, and it just makes sense to me that Romans would respond well to the use of the hand in general. Hands were how orators spoke to the masses and to the Senate, how silence was called for, and how religious deference could be shown. Just like today, Romans spoke with their hands and others were expected to listen.
P.S. Arthur Urbano has a great photo of the manus dei from San Vitale here. Do yourself a favor and follow his Flickr stream if you like late antique art.