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

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.

THE ARTIST

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."

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas