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The Little Detail & Inspiration

The Hands That Say it All

Hands have been both the subject and the means of artistic expression for thousands of years. 

Ever since we uncovered cave wall paintings showing the hands of a couple (now dated at 25,000 years ago), hands have preoccupied artists.   

In Baroque and Renaissance, we often see hands weirdly positioned on some paintings while others have subjects entirely without hands. 

"One thing we learned in art school and art history classes is hands were awfully difficult to paint," says the medal artist Monika Molenda.

Painters would charge more to paint a hand. (It's safe to assume the subject was wealthy if you see a hand in the picture.)

Many artists perfected one position to make a quick buck, and artists copied from one another, which may help explain the "Renaissance gang sign" phenomenon in fine art.

Sometimes it isn't the gesture you make, but where you make it

I am speaking about the bras d'honneur by the Polish pole vaulter Władysław Kozakiewicz and the particular way he celebrated his gold medal at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. This was the  the response to the crowds that booed his world-class performance:

The famous Władysław Kozakiewicz’s gesture after winning the gold medal in the pole vault at the 1980 Summer Olympics in front of a hostile crowd in Moscow. Picture credits The Polish History Museum, Warsaw

It instantly shot to fame as the symbol of resistance agains  Soviet dominance in Poland. 

When the Soviet ambassador protested Kozakiewicz be stripped of his medal for the insult, Polish authorities explained the gesture was an involuntary muscle contraction caused by exertion.

When Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope in 1978, and Ronald Reagan became President in 1981, many in Poland saw Manus Dei — the Hand of God

A wave of labor strikes gripped Poland in 1976 that lead to the creation of Solidarity in 1980. When the communists delegalized the union two years later, the bloodiest street unrest followed. During the martial law, from 1981 to 1983, 91 protesters were brutally killed with AK-47 assault rifles.

The Pope's masses in 1979 in Poland drew millions in what had been as much a spiritual gathering as a peaceful political demonstration. John Paul II was the moral force and the bellwether of change.

The hands in the Commemorative design "speak with eloquent silence — the language that penetrates the barrier of a nation and age."   

While the Pope's hands positioned against the flagstaff — the symbol of a messenger and his untiring pilgrimage — provide strong vertical structure.

I want to bring to you Bernard M. Adamowicz, an expert from Poland who made the life of John Paul II and numismatics his lifetime passion. His interpretation of The Polish Heritage Mint's design warrants a mention.

The interpretation closest to the heart of John Paul II is that these pilgrimages have become an opportunity to meet so many people. Those were not "crowds."

Where we see a crowd, He saw an individual. The person he came to meet. 

The central message of the medal — which is a powerful reminder of his teachings — the message conveyed by the extended hands, is that the hands are specific and singular. 

Perhaps it is the hand of someone who reminisces with joy today: I was with him. 

This is my hand. And that is a beautiful memory of John Paull II to hold. That I can say: I was close to a saint.

—Bernard Marek Adamowicz, May 2020

Bernard Marek Adamowicz is one of the founders of the Polish Association of Medallic Art, initiator of an exhibition dedicated to John Paul II in Medal Art, held at the Royal Castle in Warsaw in 2014.

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