Many people are puzzled by icons in which persons — frequently angels, but also other persons — are seen with the hands covered with what appear to be towels. They wonder what the reason for these “towels” might be. When seen in icons of the Baptism of Jesus, they might even think that the angels are carrying towels to dry Jesus off, as though he has just come wet from a bath. Actually there is a different reason behind this peculiar feature of icons.
Hands are covered in icons as a sign of great reverence and humility. The practice of covering the hands may have come from an Eastern court custom followed in the old Persian Empire, which was later adopted in the Greco-roman world and the Roman court, then passed on in the byzantine court. Hands were covered when objects were handed to or received from the Emperor, both as a sign of great respect and to show a kind of symbolic barrier between the Emperor and those approaching him. At one time, a cloth was even sewn onto the outer garment of those handing object to or from the Emperor in the byzantine court, so that they might use it to cover their hands. The impression given is that what was touched by the Emperor had become “sacred” in a sense; it was not an ordinary object and was not to be treated without great respect. In any case, the practice of covering the hands when touching a sacred object is thought to have been introduced in late antiquity, and was used also in religious contexts to indicate reverence before a divine presence.
Technically in iconography, the motif of covered hands is given the Latin name manus velatae — which simply means “veiled hands,” or manibus velatis.
It is said that at one time when the Roman Emperor Julian was giving rewards to some men called to the palace, one of them reached out to take the gift with bare hands. Julian then remarked that the men knew how to take, but not how to receive, because the bare hands were not covered in respect, as should have been done with proper etiquette. It was “very bad form,” as the British expression has it.
So again, in icons, the covering of the hands symbolizes not only great reverence and humility, but also emphasizes the sacredness of certain objects or persons. The hands may be covered with separate cloth, or with part of the garment. Sometimes only one hand is covered.
We find “covered hands” in many icons, for example — as already mentioned — the angels in icons of the Theophany — the Baptism of Jesus:
We may find them on the angels depicted at the Birth of Jesus:
We often see a cloth or part of a garment between the hand and the Gospels in icons where a saint such as Nicholas holds the book:
We find it also in icons showing angels carrying the symbols of the Passion:
Now when you see covered hands in this or that icon type, you will know what it signifies — strange though it may sometimes appear.