Hilliard, Nicholas: Portrait of an Unknown Man Clasping a Hand from a Cloud (1588)

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The Independent Culture

Images are mostly not for looking at. They are for being there and having around. Take family photos. A grandmother, say, sits in her sitting room, surrounded by framed pictures that are set up on shelves and mantelpiece. They show the various members of her family, living and dead and newly born. They show children at different stages of their growing up. They show family occasions.

What's the point of these images? They aren't meant to be beautiful pictures, or psychological studies, or documentary dramas. They're not informing the old lady of what her family look like, or reminding her of their existence. She may not even turn her eyes upon them much. Their role is to stand for family members and family events, to make them present, to bring them near.

Family photos in a living room, or placed on an office desk, or carried in a purse, or used as a computer screensaver: these images are doing something that images have always done. The technology may be modern, but the function is immemorial. The picture is an effigy that substitutes. It performs a kind of magic. The effect is so everyday that we hardly notice it, and it would be strange to say that these images had supernatural power. Nevertheless, what they do for us overrides the laws of nature. They make the absent present. They bring the distant together. They're a way of staying close, holding on to your nearest and dearest when they're away.

It's more about bonding than looking. Though the image is a visual likeness of the person it proxies, the job it does is not essentially a visual one. It's a token that stands for somebody. It may be gazed at from time to time, but when it's not in view it's still playing its role.

Yet if the image in question is not a family snap, if it's an old portrait miniature, then it tends to lose that role. It ends up in a museum or gallery. The private proxy image is turned into an art object. It is very misleading. To find it on display gives the impression that the public domain is where it belongs. And to gaze on it through security glass suggests that its purpose is to be looked at, and only looked at. And to go to the next step, and see it in reproduction - that is probably even more misleading. On top of everything else, you lose a sense of its scale.

The miniature, as a matter of fact, is not named after its modest size. The word doesn't come from the Latin minimus, meaning very small. It comes from the Latin minium, meaning red lead. It referred originally to the red lead paint with which the capital letters of an illuminated manuscript were painted. But the name got transferred, partly because of the verbal mix-up, to the little pictures that were painted inside these letters, and then to any little picture. All the same, with the portrait miniature, size is crucial.

Nicholas Hilliard's Portrait of an Unknown Man Clasping a Hand from a Cloud is much smaller than you see it here. (Unlike most pictures, miniatures generally get enlarged in reproduction). In reality its dimensions are six by five centimetres. This image, in other words, is like a lock of hair in a locket. It's an image to be hung round the neck (rather than on the wall), worn close to the body, near to the heart. And it must be some kind of love token. Though the man is unidentified, and the inscription is obscure - "Attici amoris ergo" - it has love as its middle word, and it seems to be a lady's hand that descends from the cloud to hold the gentleman's. Getting both hands and the tuck of cloud into this little world is a squash. Most miniatures make do with a head and shoulders. But the presence of the hands, hand-in-hand, gives a special stress to this one. It emphasises that a miniature is not just a small and portable image. It's specifically hand-sized. It is something a hand can close on.

Hands give. Hands clasp. Hands plight their troths. Hands hold tight, hold on. Miniatures are rich in amorous hand themes. The miniature says: I give myself to you, I put myself in your hands, hold on to me, keep me safe, never let me go. The miniature encapsulates its subject, turns a person into something that can be wholly enclosed, wholly given and wholly grasped. So it is a natural symbol of dedication, fidelity, intimacy, protection, linkage across distance. And here, the way the woman's hand enters the oval from the outside to clasp the man's makes this image-magic explicit. It acts out the bond that any love-miniature embodies. It's as if her hand, by holding the token of the absent man, has managed to cross the distance between them, and reach him, wherever he was, and take his. The fact that she holds on to his miniature means that his hand will always be in hers.

And more than fidelity or intimacy, Hilliard's theme here seems to be protection. The hand emerges from a cloud, and is therefore a helping or a guiding hand, a hand from heaven. The woman left behind becomes like a guardian angel, hovering and watching over her travelling lover, and keeping him from trouble.

GK Chesterton said that "to love anything is to see it at once under lowering clouds of danger". The Portrait of an Unknown Man Clasping a Hand from a Cloud offers an antidote to that anxiety. While she holds on, a cloud of safety is always with him.


Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) did not always work small, but his miniatures are his fame. His images have become icons of the Elizabethan court, preserving the faces of the Queen, Francis Drake, Philip Sidney and others. Hilliard said in his book The Arte of Limning: "It is for the service of noble persons very meet, in small volumes, in private manner, for them to have the portraits and pictures of themselves, their peers, or any other foreign persons which are of interest to them."