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In paintings and sculptures, you can find people pointing up with their index finger.
What does an artist or sculptor mean by this?

Raphael, School of Athens
By Raphael, The School of Athens (Public Domain) (source).

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  • I think it's a typically Mannerist thing. (See, e.g. Leonardo's John the Baptist.) However, aside from an allusion to heaven, I don't know more.
    – Buzz
    May 31 at 2:38
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    "How many times do I have to tell you I don't want to buy your book; I've already got a book. Now for the last time, get away from me and leave me alone before I count to three. One, ..."
    – fixer1234
    May 31 at 23:26
  • @fixer1234 A hilarious explanation. Thanks for the fun.
    – Eagle
    May 31 at 23:37
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It depends on the context.

  • In your example, Raphael's fresco The School of Athens, the gesture is made by Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher.
    He is pointing upwards because his philosophical inquiries (as outlined in his Theory of Forms) have led him to conclude that the true nature of things is of a higher order than reality as we perceive it.

    His pupil Aristotle, standing next to him, has his hand hovering in front of him, indicating - possibly arguing - that he has come to conclude that there is no reality separate from the one we can perceive.

    An additional function of these gestures is that these two figures, the most prominent in this particular fresco, indicate the major axes of the space: the vertical indication leads the gaze of the spectator upwards, even outside of the fresco into a suggested, virtual realm (the painted skies above the painted architecture - which is especially poignant for Plato's idealism), whereas Aristotle points towards the spectator, into the very room they are standing.
    Through these gestures, the audience is pulled into the artworks, made part of it, and at the same time invited to look around in the chamber where this fresco is made, the Stanze di Raffaello.

  • Often, however, in European visual art, the finger pointing upwards suggest the existence or presence of God.
    This becomes obvious once you see how many depictions of Jesus, saints, angels, or other figures in Christian religious visual art make this gesture.

enter image description here enter image description here
St. John the Baptist, by Leonardo da Vinci.
John is pointing upward as the true salvation does not come from the act of baptism alone but from God.
The Angel of Death, by Émile Jean-Horace Vernet.
The soul of a young woman is being taken out of bed. She is pointing upwards, suggesting she will ascend to heaven.              
  • At other times (or simultaneously) it can suggest a warning, gesture of importance, or an invitation to pay attention, just as it can be used today.
enter image description here enter image description here
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David.
Here Socrates, having been poisoned, still uses his last seconds to teach his philosophy.
The Secret, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Along with the title, the gesture here is ambiguous, and able to hold the spectator's attention through this puzzlement.                       
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    Thanks for the good answer and the additional examples, they are helpful. I would also like to know the meaning of this gesture in statues of Mercury. Example 1 Example 1
    – Eagle
    May 31 at 14:13
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    @Eagle Mercury is the messenger of the Roman gods, bridging our world and the higher divine world. Apart from his gesture indicating this visual and symbolic linking between the two, my guess is that he is pointing upwards both in reference to this higher lineage and to his role as a carrier of messages of great importance.
    – Joachim
    May 31 at 19:02
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    It sounds logical. Thank you very much for your answer. In this section, people ask mostly how to do something. It would be interesting to have a section on history of art and how to understand artwork, or at least such tags, to discuss such things.
    – Eagle
    May 31 at 19:38

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