La Mano Poderosa

La Mano Poderosa, also known as the Powerful Hand, represents a significant element of colonial life in parts of the Americas. The symbol of the hand of Christ was introduced by the Spanish missionaries and has important spiritual value among the faithful colonials who valued rich and robust Catholic traditions. The image was designed to convert the native peoples, as Catholics attempted to spread Christianity throughout the Americas. The image symbolizes an idealized family structure, and what families in the Colonial America’s aspired to be. It was also significant because of the juxtaposition between the godly aspects of Christ evident through the tools of torture which represent his sacrifice, as well as his more human side through his family.

This is an image of the Powerful Hand. Created using oil on tin, and dates back to Mexico in the 19th century.

This image of the Powerful Hand was made in Mexico in the 19th century and was created using oil paint on tin. It was created to serve as a religious work of art for a more domestic setting. The small scale of the image prevents it from being capable of viewed by large crowds in a church; it could be best viewed by a small group of people, perhaps a family. The image shows the power of Christ, and reminds the viewers of his strength through the symbols of torture scattered across the bottom. The hand of Christ is a protective symbol, that may have been designed to protect the family and the home in which it was placed. The instruments of torture associated with the death of Christ were powerful objects that reminded viewers of the suffering of Christ to protect humanity from its sins. The figures in the highest register of the painting serve as hope for salvation and welcome them into heaven among the Holy Family.

The image of the Powerful Hand uses three horizontal registers to separate the content of the piece. The painting shows a flock of sheep, a blood-filled chalice, and five figures dressed in garb that hints at their biblical nature, such as a nun’s shroud and a shepherd’s robes. This also indicates a culture of humility and simultaneously represents the Catholic desire for functionality and modesty. In the upper portion, the five figures shown represent the extended Holy Family, placed in the clouds to represent their status as holy beings. The central figure is Jesus, Mary and her mother Anna to his left, and Joseph-holding the flowering staff, a symbol of his marriage to Mary- and Mary’s father Joachim to Christ’s right. At the bottom of the frame, seven lambs are shown drinking from a chalice, surrounded by dark instruments of torture. In the central register, the hand of Christ is depicted. The hand is a representation of Christ’s suffering and the blood pouring from its center flows down into a Holy Grail, which feeds the lambs below.

An image of the hand of Jesus, with members of the Holy Family standing on each of his fingertips.
In this depiction of La Mano Poderosa, the figures are situated on the fingertips of the hand of Christ, but still represented among the clouds as the Holy Family. Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

The style is simple, with a basic composition and emphasis on strong colors to create visual interest. In terms of style, all five figures are painted in the same way, as they each have very round, cartoonish faces, with simple expressions, and can only be differentiated based on the symbolic objects they hold. Christian texts did not have many physical descriptions of these religious figures, so the artist may have chosen to paint their faces simply, almost generically, because there were no details to incorporate into the painting. The family members are depicted using bright colors that supplement the hand as the focal point of the image. The Powerful Hand conveys a somber and ominous tone in the lower register through the use of dark colors. On the ground there are a variety of symbols representing the torture devices that were used against Christ during the Crucifixion, including the crown of thorns and palm leaves. The surrounding lambs represent the followers of Christ that were saved and nourished by the blood shed from his Crucifixion, as well as a representation of the Eucharist. The lambs are painted in a very light white, that makes them almost transparent, and sharply contrasts with the dark coloration of the torture devices that surround them. The artist likely used translucent lambs to emphasize the blood’s brightness and add an unreal and dreamlike aspect to the image.

The image incorporates relevant Bible aspects such as Holy Family, torture instruments and Christ’s hand. The figures upon the highest register of the painting serve as hope for salvation and portray a sense of welcoming into heaven from the members of the Holy Family.  The ideal family is represented through the Holy Family and serves as a model which native peoples in the Americas were encouraged to emulate. They are a religious and benevolent family, always in the service of God and serve as symbols of hope for salvation into heaven. The extended holy family are depicted as simple and humble people, shepherds and priests, who follow the teachings of the Bible and dedicate themselves to being good Christians. In addition to their piety, good Catholics are modest and fearful of God. Their fear leads them to avoid sinning in order to gain entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. Individuals looking at the image would be reminded of the power of Christ and communicate with Him through prayer.

An image of a sculpted hand, with carved figures who stand at the top of each fingertip.
The artist of this work elected to minimize the detailing to the  features of the Holy Family, reducing them to anthropomorphic figures. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Teodoro Vidal Collection.

Christianity and successful missionary attempts of conversion had a strong impact upon the people and culture in the Colonies of Central and Southern America. People expressed their devotion through adherence to core principles and by following the Holy Family as the ideal family structure.In the process of using visual propaganda in order to persuade the natives, this artwork was used to remind the populations of the sacrifices of Christ as a savior, as well as appeal to the emotional aspects of a family.

Works Cited

Burkhart, L. M., & Gasco, J. (2016). The colonial period in Mesoamerica. In The Legacy of Mesoamerica (pp. 200-239). Routledge.

Lobo, S., Talbot, S., & Carlston, T. M. (2016). Native American voices. Routledge.

Matovina, T., & Poyo, G. E. (Eds.). (2015). ¡ Presente!: US Latino Catholics from Colonial Origins to the Present. Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Nunn, N., Akyeampong, E., Bates, R., & Robinson, J. A. (2014). Gender and missionary influence in colonial Africa. African development in historical perspective.

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