Friday 24 November 2017

Art in Focus: Hand of Glory

A number of years ago in one of my books full of frenzied ideas I did some doodles inspired by the Hand of Glory, and later adorned the cover with a version of it. Over the years I've repeatedly come back to the idea and desperately hoped that one day I'd manage to fit it into my artwork somewhere. Because the Hand of Glory and it's powerful image always felt quite special to me I knew it had to be something incredible, so I waited for the details and ideas to brew and stew themselves until they formed something I knew would do the Hand of Glory justice.

My fascination with the Hand of Glory first came about at around the age of 14, when I first saw what turned out to be, and still is, my favourite film 'The Wicker Man.' (1973). The film, in all honesty, began my love affair with Horror cinema, and stoked the fires of obsession regarding all things macabre, occult and honestly, heathen. The Hand of Glory which Willow placed upon Sergent Howies bedside table, giving him the impression she wished him to sleep long into their May Day celebrations, differs from most historical texts and descriptions of what a real Hand of Glory looked like. Originally the hand was said to be closed grasping a candle made from the fat of the body from which it is cut. Yet the Wicker Mans depiction shows each finger acting as its own candle, conjuring up a far more sinister image and honestly increasing the impact and the horror of the hand visually.

Since first setting eyes on that hand blazing beside Sergent Howie, perhaps in hindsight hinting at the fate of his own flesh, I have always held a fascination with the image of the Hand of Glory. I have delved into its mysterious and often sparse history, seeking out images of it and interpretations, clearly I am not the only one whose intrigue was sparked by seeing this shocking sight. Artists depictions, though out there, are few and far between. Illustrations as old as the practice itself, strange Victorian etchings and more modern interpretations (some no doubt influenced by The Wicker Man) can be found here and there to visually depict the folklore tales surrounding the fascinating practice. But I was eager to create my own interpretation of the Hand of Glory at long last.

When returning to the Hand of Glory I thumbed back over my notes and doodles from previous years, seeing what the culmination of all those hours of pondering was going to be. I looked at one of the only known specimens of a Hand of Glory in existence (housed at Whitby Museum) and eventually began to sketch, from my own hand, my very own Hand of Glory.

As the design progressed and the basic sketch was complete I began to think about how I wanted the piece to look overall, Id already decided a black background would make the hand stand out, but this sense of darkness surrounding the few flames was something I really wanted to convey. I looked back at some unrelated doodles I had done previously, desperate to make a series with intricate borders reminiscent of Medieval manuscripts, and decided the two fitted together perfectly, like the leaf of some secret Grimoire on dark and sinister magic, a mystery to the majority of the world.

I began refining the border and incorporating some elements I thought would really add to the piece and bring more depth. I added the circular 'portholes' to allow the opportunity to include small pieces of art related to the history and creation of the hand. For the first time I decided to try my hand at something a little different and incorporated some of my poorly written poetry into the border of the piece, relating to the creation and history of the Hand of Glory, providing a little more information for those less familiar with the hand. The poem reads:

'Cut down from sinners gibbet,
Thy earthly movement I inhibit,
Hand of Glory burning bright,
Illuminate me with thy light,
Dead mans magic weave your spell,
Before thy are condemned to Hell.'

This contains some basic information on what the Hand of Glory actually is. A murderer, hanged for their crime, has their left hand cut from their body, as both history and Latin teach us, the left is considered sinister. This is then pickled and the fat from the body is used to form a candle, some texts talk of the use of the hair for a wick but not all. The hand then acts as a macabre candle stick, holding the candle. Folklore legends tell that once lit the Hand of Glory will render those it is used upon motionless. Some tales tell the only way to extinguish one and counter its effects is to douse it in milk, but many tales differ from version to version.

When it came to adding details I decided to keep the idea of the candle holder base originally used in my book cover design many years ago, adding the detail of the handle as an ouroboros, one of my favourite recurring things to slip subtly into my artwork. I also chose to add in the remnants of a lace sleeve still clinging to the wrist desperately, hinting at the former life of its owner and bringing a sense of Victorian grandeur to the piece.

I hope that in my completed Hand of Glory I finally managed to achieve a piece which does justice to that macabre burning hand that mesmerized me so many years ago. And ultimately shaped my interest and love of British Folklore and 'the old gods', creating (in the words of Lord SummerIsle) 'A Heathen, conceivably, but not I hope, an unenlightened one ...'

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