The image of two hands clasped in prayer seems, on its surface, simple. Most people identify hands clasped in this manner as praying, in particular associating it with the Christian faith, though in fact there is a great deal of history beneath the surface.
In early religious art, artists did not regularly depict praying individuals with their hands clasped. Those in prayer were pictured with their palms upright and outstretched in front of them or at their sides. However, the image of two hands clasped together (apart from the rest of the person) has become nothing short of iconic, and this is popularly attributed to German artist Albrecht Dürer’s 1508 piece, “Hands of the Apostles” (also referred to as “Praying Hands”).
A popular story (though likely untrue) is that both and his brother were artists who wished to further their art study, but for economic reasons they could not both go. With the flip of a coin, it was decided that Albrecht should receive higher education in Nuremberg, while his brother would work in the mines to support him, the idea being that later they would trade places, with Albrecht supporting him. Albrecht was successful and began making quite a bit of money, at which point he told his brother that, finally, it was his turn to perfect his art. However, his brother’s hands had been damaged and afflicted with arthritis from his work in the mines, so the sacrifice could never be repaid. The story claims that the hands in this sketch are Albrecht’s brother’s.
The act of folding hands to pray may stem from the medieval idea of vassalage and the ceremony attached to it, in which a vassal would kneel before their lord with their hands folded in submission. The parallel to the humble believer’s submission to God is clear.
Praying hands tattoo designs are, of course, a symbol of faith and supplication, or at least a reminder to the individual with the tattoo to stay devoted. They are often combined with other artistic elements or text to customize the design for a particular person, especially as a memorial tattoo.
Praying hands tattoo designs often make use of three additional images: rosaries, crosses, and clouds. Catholics in particular often picture the hands clasping a rosary, and setting the hands against a backdrop of clouds with light streaming through evokes ideas of heaven and the Holy Spirit. In religious art, light from the sky often works this way, representing a union between a person and heaven.
Praying hands designs are often (but not always, of course) used as a memorial tattoo design. This design represents the loved one’s faith and devotion, as well as the idea that they are still watching over the tattoo wearer from Heaven. If the memorialized person’s name is not used, their date of death or birth is often used.
All designs are subject to variation, and praying hands are no exception. Radiating light or clouds is often pictured behind the hands themselves, and in some cases that backdrop may be altered.
If the design incorporates a cross, that is another place for an artistic decision. Most crosses are ornate and often golden, though some designs use a more lifelike cross: wooden, decaying, and rugged.
Faith is arguably the most important to us at two points in life: its beginning and its end. So while we may use praying hands in memorial of a passed love one, they’re also often used to celebrate the birth of a child and to represent the parent’s desire to raise their children under the guidance of God.
Some designs are meant to evoke the hands of Jesus Christ specifically. This can be accomplished a variety of ways, including depicting the hands as pierced by a nail, as in crucifixion.
On the hands themselves another image may be pictured as well, such as the face of Jesus himself.
Christ’s iconic crown of thorns is sometimes also found encircling the praying hands, tying the idea of praying hands not only to religious devotion in general but to the life of Jesus in particular.
Another possibility is to give the hands blood, reminiscent once again of the suffering of Christ. Most praying hands designs are in black and white, but using a bright red for the blood of Christ is a way of creating a vivid contrast between the blood and the rest of the design, giving it some added emotional weight.
Another popular method of incorporating text into a praying hands tattoo design is to surround it with a Bible verse that is spiritually significant to the person with the tattoo.
Praying hands can be applied to any place on the body and work at almost any size, though designs incorporating text will be easier to read when they’re larger.
Hundreds of years after the initial creation of Dürer’s original “Praying Hands” sketch, this simple image continues to inspire and humble people across the world, a remarkable thing that speaks to the significance of prayer in society. Dürer might be amazed to learn that, so long after his death, his most well known work was an unfinished one, one that pictured not a full apostle, but just the hands, the spiritual heart of his incomplete original vision.