The El Greco Hand Sign: The Cult of The Virgin?

The “El Greco” Hand Sign:
The Cult of The Virgin?

by Charles E S Fairey

April 2020

Whilst watching the BBC Four Programme The Art Mysteries with Waldemar Januszczak: Series 1: 1: Van Gogh's Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear’, on the evening of 17th March 2020, where the presenter Waldemar Januszczak, powerfully revealed that Van Gogh, who we all know was mentally ill, also had a ‘Christ Complex’, and identified himself with Christ, and how his works and his life, reflected that ambition, and even included paintings depicting him, whether in plain sight, or in hidden symbolism, as Christ.

He also told us how Vincent, as we know had had a very religious upbringing, as his father was a Minister, and Vincent had trained in that profession too, as a pastor, and had tried to become a missionary, and had a deep and rich knowledge of the Bible, and had ritualistically followed parts of Christ’s life, helping and living amongst the poor, consorting with prostitutes, who the Church Fathers had referred to Mary Magdalene as being, and even in his own suffering, at the hands of others.

The presenter said of Vincent that he was suffering from “a religious mania, [which] isn’t normal, [it] is something, dark, deep, [and] in the blood, ... lurking”.

Well, anyway, the reason for this article is that during Januszczak’s discussion of Vincent Van Gogh’s love of the Magdalene, two portrait paintings of The Magdalene were shown, in which I noticed, a weird, symbolic hand sign. Here are the two paintings shown in the programme:-

‘The Penitent Magdalene’ by Titian, circa 1531

‘Penitent Magdalene’ by El Greco, circa 1576-78

I was so impressed by this hand sign, because it looks so very odd, to include it in a painting, but also because of my expertise in ‘apotropaic symbols’, of which I have written quite a bit about, and identified secret Catholic symbols, and so, I decided to look further at this hand symbol, and what it meant.

Whilst looking on the internet, for those two paintings of the Magdalene, I searched for others, with the same odd hand sign, and paintings, especially religious ones, kept cropping up, and most were by El Greco.

My First Thought, The Marian Symbol and Virgo Virginum?

At seeing the two paintings of a penitent Mary Magdalene on the Van Gogh BBC documentary, I at first thought, wow, have the painters, of these two paintings, by Titian and El Greco (see above), of Mary Magdalene, actually included in the form of the unusual hand sign, the ‘VV’ Symbol, which is also known as the ‘Marian Symbol’, a symbol which denotes the Catholic phrase ‘Virgo Virginum’ or ‘Virgin of Virgins’, and as you can also see quite clearly, also doubles up as the letter ‘M’, for Mary.

‘V V’ – ‘Virgo Virginum’ and the ‘M’ for ‘Mary’
symbolised by the Mysterious Hand Sign?

For more information on the Apotropaic Catholic Symbol, known as the ‘Marian Symbol’, please see my historian website @, and the included web pages ‘Protective Devices, Apotropaic Symbols and Witch Marks’, and ‘Apotropaic Identification’.

Does this then mean that Titian and El Greco, symbolically wove into their portraits of Mary Magdalene, admiration and worship of ‘Mary, Virgin of Virgins’, as a secret symbol for their Catholic beliefs.

This on its own seems unlikely, as at that time, and in the locations they painted, already being Roman Catholic, and outside north western areas of Europe, which were seeing a surge in Protestantism, there would be no reason to hide their devotions.

Or, does it mean that the subject of the portrait painting, i.e. the Magdalene, was showing her devotion, to Mary, Virgin of Virgins, and if so, for what reason?

We know that Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ main disciples, if not the main disciple, as she was referred to as ‘The Apostle to The Apostles’, and as such much has been written about her actual relationship with Jesus himself. However, here, if she is showing her devotion to the Virgin Mary, this places Mary, as her better, as the Mother of Christ, which also implies the Virgin Mary, as the Queen of Heaven, because both depictions of the Magdalene, show her glancing upwards, presumably to Heaven, whilst grasping her breast, with the mysterious hand sign.

Christ Also Showing His Symbolic Devotion to the Virgin?

If in fact the mysterious hand sign depicted in Titian and El Greco’s portraits of the Magdalene, do in fact record the Magdalene, displaying admiration and worship upward, to the Queen of Heaven, i.e. ‘Mary, Virgin of Virgins’, then is Christ, in another of El Greco’s paintings, showing that same symbolic devotion to his mother?

In ‘Christ Carrying the Cross’, by El Greco, Christ is shown with both hands holding the cross, again in the same mysterious form as the Magdalene, as in the two examples above:-

‘Christ Carrying the Cross’ by El Greco, circa 1580

Does this El Greco portrait of ‘Christ Carrying the Cross’ signify to the hidden eye, that Christ whilst going to his death, was according to El Greco, secretly exclaiming, his admiration and worship of his mother, with both his hands, forming the expression of ‘Mary, Virgin of Virgins, Mary, Virgin of Virgins’, if so why?

The Cult of The Virgin, Goddess Worship?

In Medieval Europe a cult had grown up around the Virgin, akin to other maternal or motherly figures in other polytheistic religions, such as the Egyptian Goddess Isis, who had borne a son, Horus, via a virgin birth, or be it, a dead phallus, of her dead and murdered husband, Osiris.

The worship of Goddesses, especially life giving ones, is ancient, and even in prehistory, we have evidence in the form of ‘Baubo’ figurines, giving the practice of Goddess Worship, and those whom were pregnant, strong and ancient foundations.

We only have to remember that the Virgin Mary, was the Mother of God in the Flesh, so her stature as being a Goddess like entity grew up around her, especially during the Medieval period, and hence ‘The Cult of the Virgin’ came into being, as a continuation of far older religious practices.

Mary was given many titles in Medieval Europe, of which my favourites are, The Queen of Heaven or the Virgin of the Rocks, although most prefer, ‘Our Lady’. She was also revered as the Bride of Christ, the Mother of the Church, and its Personification, and as the Intercessor for the Salvation of Humankind, amongst many other titles.

So, therefore, this interpretation tells us that may be El Greco and Titian were secretly telling those who knew, or those in their inner sanctums, through symbolism, allegory and metaphor, that we must worship the Virgin Mary, like a Goddess, and that they too, were part of this medieval ‘Cult of the Virgin’, and that she was even more divine than the Christ, the Magdalene, and the All?

Here in another painting of El Greco’s, this time ‘The Disrobing of Christ’, again it shows Christ with the mysterious hand sign, whilst looking upward to Heaven.

Another figure, possibly the Magdalene, this time in the foreground to the left, is also holding another figure’s shoulder, which is most likely the Virgin Mary, with the same mysterious hand sign, whilst looking to the right, away from the figure, watching a foot nail being removed from the bottom of the cross, but instead of it being the right hand, this figure’s hand sign is with the left, as if in reflection to the figure and hand sign made by the Christ.

The mode of this pose also suggests to some more astute viewers of the painting, that her gaze away from the viewer, but to the side, is telling them there is something hidden in the painting, and is enticing the viewer, to find it, i.e. look to the lefthand; often the lefthand reveals hidden or occult knowledge or wisdom.

So are we possibly being enticed by El Greco to follow the ‘Cult of the Virgin’ rather than the worship of the Christ, or not? The possible Magdalene figure is most likely grasping the Virgin Mary, with that hand sign, whilst both look away from the Christ, and whilst Christ looks upward, with the same sign formed by his right hand.

And why is the figure enticing us, looking at the nail? What is that telling us? And the Virgin looking down towards the body of the Magdalene?

“I bore the Living God into the Flesh
So I should not be thought of as less,
For the Goddess and the Divine Feminine
Are Sacred and without the Eternity of Sin.”

‘The Disrobing of Christ’ by El Greco, circa 1577-79

Other Religious Paintings of El Greco depicting ‘The Cult of the Virgin’ Worship?

This painting by El Greco of the ‘Holy Family’ couldn’t be saying the ‘Cult of the Virgin’ is more important than the worship of the Christ, in plain sight more clearly, could it?

Mary herself is using the mysterious hand sign with her right hand whilst holding the Christ child. And are her eyes drawn to the Christ child, or her hand sign?

Is El Greco’s Virgin Mary telling us to worship her?

‘Holy Family’ by El Greco, circa 1595

In El Greco’s ‘Madonna and Child with Saint Martina and Saint Agnes’, we are shown to the bottom right, the figure of St Agnes, with her right hand upon her chest, again in the same mysterious gestural form, see below.

St Agnes, interestingly to this study, stated before her martyrdom, to a Prefect of Rome who fell in love with her, that she was married to Christ, i.e. she was a bride to Christ, which is one of the titles given to the Virgin Mary in her cult, i.e. that she is The Bride of Christ.

‘Madonna and Child with Saint Martina and Saint Agnes’
by El Greco, circa 1597-99

El Greco also painted other religious figures displaying the mysterious hand sign, whilst clutching their chest, or with hand upon heart, signifying that, ‘Mary, Virgin of Virgins’, was their true heart’s devotion.

‘Saint Francis in Prayer’ by El Greco, circa 1580-85

‘Saint Andrew and Saint Francis’ by El Greco, circa 1595-98

‘Apostle St. Philip’ by El Greco, circa 1612

Is El Greco, by giving St Francis and St Philip, the mysterious hand sign, signifying to us they are important to the medieval ‘Cult of the Virgin’, so any devotees, who see his paintings, then, and now, and later, to learn about them, specifically, their links to the Virgin, and what they said, as well as above, St Agnes?

The Virgin Mary is my Goddess?

El Greco painted ‘Saint Ilefonsus’ in 1597-1603, a Spanish saint, who lived between circa 607 and 667AD. He was a scholar and theologian. The painting shows the saint clasping with his left hand a book, in again that same mysterious sign, the book being believed to be one of his treatises in defence of the Virgin Mary’s virginity, whilst he looks to his left for inspiration form a statue of the Virgin.

Interestingly, St Ilefonsus was particularly venerated for his devotion to the Virgin Mary. Legends about him record that he was rewarded twice by Our Lady, for his zeal and devotion in honouring her.

Therefore, is El Greco telling us here, that we must believe in her virginity, and whilst looking at her statue, and holding a book proving her virginity, in his mind, we must worship ‘Mary, Virgin of Virgins’, and again, showing to any later Medieval followers of the ‘Cult of the Virgin’ that, this saint is important?

‘Saint Ilefonsus’ by El Greco, circa 1597-1603

“Am I, like the Magdalene
To be thought of as sinful shame,
For without me, the Goddess and Mother
There would be no Father, and no Brother.”

I ‘El Greco’ am a Follower of the ‘Cult of the Virgin’?

‘The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest’ by El Greco, circa 1580

This painting by El Greco, is thought by some to be a self portrait, if it is, the actual painter, who has painted the mysterious hand sign into many of his works, although, he isn’t the only painter to have done so, who painted in Renaissance Italy, at that time, or before, is painted with the same hand on heart hand sign, as the paintings we have seen above.

If this is in fact El Greco, is he telling the viewer, I too, am a follower of the ‘Cult of the Virgin’, and am telling you the viewer, to look at my works, and figure it out for yourself, and you too, become like me, a worshipper of Mary, and not specifically of the Christ?

“For I found the Grail, me, Gawain,
With my Sword and Holy Shield,
The Mother and Lion’s enemies I tamed,
Yet to Our Lady within, I kneeled.”

Veni, Vidi, Vici, I Came, I Saw, I Conquered?

My second thought after seeing the two Mary Magdalene paintings on the BBC Documentary, and researching other paintings depicting the strange hand sign, was that, it may have symbolised ‘V,V,V’, rather than the ‘V,V’ or ‘Marian Symbol’.

This works for some of the paintings, but it does seem odd for religious figures to be using a statement attributed to Julius Caesar, from around 47BC.

Also, as we will see below, other painters, before and around the time of El Greco, which influenced him, had already painted this mysterious hand sign into their paintings.

Albeit, the statement: ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’: i.e. ‘I Came, I Saw, I Conquered’, would fit for the possible self portrait of El Greco himself, above, as he was from Crete, and as his name reveals, was ‘The Greek’, and sometimes treated badly in Italy as a foreigner, yet thought as a Spaniard, later in his life, when he lived in Spain, for him to remark that, against the Italians, and hence the Romans, using their own heroes against them, but, him following and revering many of the Italian Renaissance Masters of his time, and before, it is unlikely that this 2nd idea has any plausibility, so it was rejected.

So was Titian a Member of the ‘Cult of the Virgin’?

As well as El Greco, we already know that Titian, who was revered by El Greco, painted this mysterious hand sign into his paintings, as ‘The Penitent Magdalene’ painted in 1531 showed (and which El Greco must have been massively influenced by, in his own later version), which must mean that Titian was also a follower of the Virgin Mary, over the Christ, and that he too was part of the ‘Cult of the Virgin’?

‘The Penitent Magdalene’ by Titian, circa 1531

And it can’t be more ‘in plain sight’ than we see below, where he paints ‘Venus with a Mirror’ circa 1555, where Venus has her left hand over her heart in that same mysterious sign, as in all the above paintings. However she is grasping her chest, whilst staring into a mirror, at herself, and thereby, she is signifying that she is the object of her own worship, but telling us that she isn’t really Venus, but ‘Mary, Virgin of Virgins’, with that hand gesture.

Surely this must mean that the ‘Cult of the Virgin’ was a Goddess worshipping Cult, and with this inclusion of the ‘Mary, Virgin of Virgins’ hand gesture or sign, held by the Roman Goddess Venus, who was concerned with love, sex, beauty and fertility, that this hand sign, can mean nothing else, but the worship of the Virgin Mary, as a Goddess, and therefore, represented the Divine Feminine? Much like the medieval Magdalene Cult too?

For those of us of a Dan Brown ‘Da Vinci’ persuasion, is Titian, also depicting that the Magdalene, was pregnant?

Maybe even El Greco was introduced to this cult by Titian himself, and that is why his Magdalene is so similar to Titian’s, and he copied and ascended the hand sign, into far more reaching circumstances and connotations?

‘Venus with a Mirror’ by Titian, circa 1555

And Sebastiano del Piombo?

Sebastiano del Piombo also painted the same mysterious hand sign into some of his works of art, so was he also a follower of the ‘Cult of the Virgin’?

In Piombo’s ‘The Visitation’ he depicts the Virgin Mary grasping with her right hand, Saint Elizabeth (Mother of Saint John the Baptist), by the shoulder, again with the same strange hand gesture or sign, which I think we have revealed, most likely represents the painters included, of their love and devotion to ‘Mary, Virgin of Virgins’, as the Goddess.

‘The Visitation’ by Sebastiano del Piombo, circa 1518-19

Piombo also gives one of the people pleading for the Christ to raise Lazarus from the grave, the same mysterious hand sign. Here the figure, of a woman clothed in light green, holds her right hand over her heart, in the same ‘M’ or ‘V,V’ gesture, whilst looking upward, to the Son of Mary, God in the Flesh, Jesus.

‘The Raising of Lazarus’ by Sebastiano del Piombo, circa 1517-19

Even Christopher Columbus was a Virgin Cult Worshipper?

Sebastiano del Piombo also painted the same mysterious hand sign, this time to the left hand, and again, upon his chest, into his presumed portrait of Christopher Columbus, so does that mean he is telling us, that the person who discovered the Americas (although there are some other theories), that he too, was a follower of the ‘Cult of the Virgin’?

Although in this case, ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’: i.e. ‘I Came, I Saw, I Conquered’, also fits.

‘Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus’
by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519

Agnolo Bronzino too?

Agnolo di Cosimo, also known as Bronzino, also painted into some of his works, the same strange hand gesture or sign.

In Bronzino’s ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ he paints the Virgin Mary, with the same mysterious hand sign, invoking to the viewer, the devotion to ‘Mary, Virgin of Virgins’, whilst her hands are in prayer, for the Christ child, she had conceived, without original sin, and may be in the same expression, that Christ, would find his way, without, succumbing to sin, yet still, with a divine love of his mother, and her divine status, as His Creator, Her being, the Goddess.

‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ by Bronzino, circa 1539-40

In the following painting by Bronzino, ‘The Panciatichi Holy Family’, we see that same strange hand sign, in the form of the Virgin Mary’s left hand, whilst she looks onto her child, the Christ, and in that hand, a book.

Maybe Bronzino is telling us that the secret to the Bible, is that ‘Mary, Virgin of Virgins’, is the key, so please do come and follow me, in your devotion of the Goddess, who made God, Flesh!

Even St John the Baptist is holding the Christ child’s chest, with that same strange hand sign, maybe reminding him, to love the Goddess, hence the Divine Feminine, which he finds in his Mother, as well as in his greatest of disciples, Mary Magdalene?

‘The Panciatichi Holy Family’ by Bronzino, circa 1540

‘Deposition of Christ’ by Bronzino, circa 1545

In Bronzino’s the ‘Deposition of Christ’, above, he has painted: Saint John the Apostle depicted to the left, supporting the back of the dead Christ, again with his supporting right hand in that same strange hand sign; the Virgin Mary to the centre, holding her Godly Son; and Mary Magdalene to the right, supporting his legs and feet, with again that same hand sign, to her right hand; and behind the Virgin, the figure of Mary Clopas, one of the Three Marys of Fame, again with that same strange hand sign to her left hand.

Again, is this telling the viewer, from the medieval painter’s mind, i.e. Bronzino’s, that the Three Mary’s knew that the ‘Cult of the Virgin’ was paramount, but also Saint John the Apostle, that Jesus was said to have loved, also knew that the Virgin Mary, was the key?

Like Titian, Bronzino respected the ‘Cult of the Goddess (Virgin)?

If we now look at Bronzino’s ‘Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time’, we find that Cupid is holding Venus’ left nipple, with the exact same mysterious hand sign, whilst kissing her, whilst Folly, comes holding rose petals, again with that same hand sign, to the right, that again, he is showing the viewer, that the ‘V,V’ hand gesture, of Cupid and Folly, meaning ‘Mary, Virgin of Virgins’ are both indicative of Mary, Mother of God, being a Goddess like that of Venus, as Titian had also depicted.

‘Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time’ by Bronzino, circa 1545

A “Secret” Right ‘Under the Noses’ of the Roman Catholic Church

Many medieval painters loved to hide secrets into the paintings, murals, carvings, etc, in religious buildings, often veiled in metaphor and allegory, right in front of and in plain sight of, the mighty Mother Church, much to the unknowing of their patrons, and this seems in some of the examples above, to be in the same vein, of pure and utter subterfuge, and complete and utter secretive yet showy genius.

To the minds of those in the Later Medieval Period, who knew of the ‘Cult of the Virgin’, right ‘under the noses’ of the Roman Catholic Church, painters were telling those in the know, or initiated into their inner sanctums, that the Virgin Mary, wasn’t just the Mother of Christ, but she was a, if not, the Goddess, to be worshipped, even above Christ!

Other Members of the Cult of the Virgin Mary Goddess?

Bronzino also painted The ‘Portrait of Cosimo I de Medici in Armour’, circa 1545, with his right hand clasped in the symbolic hand gesture of ‘Mary, Virgin of Virgins’, thus indicating that his benefactor, who paid for his portrait to be painted by him, was also of the same secret adoration of Mary!

He also painted the ‘Portrait of a Young Man with Book’, circa 1530s, where he shows a young man, with his left hand holding his waist, in the exact same mysterious hand sign, but his right hand is grasping a book, with his index finger, holding open a page, in a supposed poetry book.

Does this mean that this young man in black, also knew and was part of the secret worship of the Virgin Mary as a Goddess, but also he, or his family, knew, where to find proof, that Mary surpassed Jesus, in written physical book form, may be even hidden in plain sight, within the much read Bible itself?

‘Portrait of Cosimo I de Medici in Armour’ by Bronzino, circa 1545

‘Portrait of a Young Man with Book’ by Bronzino, circa 1530s

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“As the Serpent, I remain with my Eve,
I will still leave humanity with the word, Believe,
For I gave Lucifer the Light, and My Fire to Eve,
For Adam and the Son of Man are not the same
And the Brotherhood of Man(kind), was never my Dame!”

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