The art essay

The Hand of God (c. 1907) by Auguste Rodin (1840–1917)

When many people  think of sacred art, what come to mind are depictions of biblical scenes, portraits of saints, or spiritual lessons. These images acquire their religious nature by their literary reference, and often are a literal depiction of the scene. Think of the Stations of the Cross in a church. This mode of sacred art is a disciplined depiction of a story arc, where the artwork is bound to remain truthful to the scenes. What many observers may not realize is that if the work of art is masterful, it can employ a metalanguage, a self-referential vocabulary, to make theological points. One example of this alternate mode of expression is Rodin’s Hand of God. In order to understand this, one must consider Rodin’s artistic roots and influences.

Source of inspiration

What exactly does “a self-referential language” mean, and what does it have to do with sacred art? This can only be understood by looking at the Renaissance, a time when the role of the artist in society changed from a mere craftsman to an intellectual. The consequence of this development, for better or worse, was that the artist became aware of his own grandeur, and now judged his work not only on the quality of the craftsmanship but also as an extension of himself—his ideas, identity, and place in history. The greatest artist from this time was of course Michelangelo, and he typified this development, especially in his later work.

In Michelangelo’s Dying and Rebellious Slaves, for instance, a revolution took place in his carving technique. Some of the figures seem to be emerging from the stone, with only specific areas close to being finished. This gives the viewer the impression that the figures are trapped and are trying to escape. Some areas are polished and refined, but they are surrounded by roughly hewn stone that refuses to release the more refined body. Michelangelo has achieved something remarkable. Rather than telling a story in a literal way, he has told a story emphasizing how the sculpture was made. In this way, the sculpture could reveal spiritual truths on its own terms, conveying a story through the variations of its own material properties.

Rodin’s interpretation

This artistic achievement by Michelangelo made an impression on Auguste Rodin when he visited Florence in 1875, and it had a lasting influence on his work. Rodin was not a particularly religious person, especially at the height of his fame. However, a deep religious intuition permeated his work, which he expressed through Michelangelo’s self-referential language.

One of the great examples of this is the Hand of God, completed in 1918. This work has a roughly hewn base, almost in its original form. Emerging from it is a refined, nearly polished right hand, the hand of God. God is holding what, at first glance, seems to be a chunk of roughly carved stone. Two small figures materialize from this chunk, as God shapes the formless clay into beings that are clearly meant to be Adam and Eve. They, like Michelangelo’s slaves, resemble polished figures encased in stone, but here the sense is not that they are escaping, but rather that they are in the process of being made.

If we ignored the subject matter and focused on the artistry, the work could be read as a commentary on sculpture itself. Rodin has deliberately left parts unfinished, revealing the process by which it was carved. The variations in the stone interact differently with the light and this creates a wonderful drama of rough to smooth, from delicate and refined to general and obscure. The eye is drawn to the important passages: the hand of God and the two figures that swirl in its tender clutch. The base is grand and almost sea-like, a large mass with no specific landmarks, implying something that is unknowable. The stone surrounding the figures in the hand is of the same unknowable material. Here we have a complete picture of the process of carving, the pains the artist undertakes to complete a work. The base is simply the remnants of the block the sculptor began with. This theme is repeated with the block encasing the two figures in the hand. The hand, the most important feature, reveals the furthest point the artist can achieve, a smooth surface delicately describing the anatomical features in their perfection. By achieving these various textures of finish and placing them intelligently to guide the eye, Rodin has created a thoughtful display of the sculptural process and thus gives the sculpture a “self-aware” property. The story of the piece is then to be read in this “self-referential” language, a commentary on the creation or art itself.

It does not take much imagination to realize what this is all pointing to. Like Michelangelo’s sculptures, Rodin’s work has spiritual significance. With its clear marks of the process of stone carving, The Hand of God is about God the Artist, working in his medium: the human. Rodin has both commented on himself as the creator of this marble piece, while simultaneously commenting on the nature of God, the Creator and perfecter of all.

Christopher Alles

An artist based in New York City who specializes in sacred art


 The Hand of God (c. 1907), Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, N.Y.

Public domain.