Bella Lindgard investigates the symbolism of the Lady’s Hand door knocker.
On a recent wander through the historic streets of East London, I was surprised to stumble across recurring and fascinating pieces of archaic door furniture; knockers in the form of a lady’s hand, delicately holding a ball or a piece of fruit. Why an obviously female hand, I wondered? The answer took me travelling – sadly only on the web – to France, Morocco, the Levant and eventually back to ancient Mesopotamia.
The history of doors must be nearly as long as the history of buildings. Doors are there to provide protection and therefore it was not long before our ancestors attached magical symbols to the outside of their doors to “ward off the evil eye.”
A palm-shaped symbol depicting an open hand with five fingers has been a sign for protection throughout history.
It is found among Mesopotamian artefacts from around 3,000 BC and therefore predates Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. The Arabic ‘khamsa’ literally means ‘five’ and may allude to the human hand and the Five Pillars of Islam or – if you’re Jewish – the Five Books of the Torah. All around the Mediterranean and across the Middle East, a symbolic female hand has traditionally been placed on front doors as a talisman to protect the house from evil. In Islamic communities it is known as the hand of Fatima Zahra, compassionate daughter of the Prophet, on Jewish homes, the hand of Miriam, sister to Moses and Aaron. Levantine Christians know it as ‘the hand of Mary’.
Always and everywhere it’s very obviously a female hand; male hands, it seems, do not possess the same power to avert harmful influences! The Buddha’s hand would be masculine, but his open-palm gesture is more a symbol of teaching than of protection. The femininity of the knocker-hand is also suggested by its delicacy as well as by the frilly sleeve, the ring and (sometimes) the piece of fruit. Understandably, with such a diversity of European and Middle Eastern cultures in the East End, the Lady’s hand is well-established as a familiar feature on London’s front doors.
The ‘Hand of Fatima’ is particularly common on front doors in Morocco and from there spread to France, and then the rest of Europe, during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Its arrival in France happily coincided with the period of Art Nouveau (say, 1890-1910) and the European castings used for the Lady’s Hand became more sensuous, more elegant and the piece of fruit more pronounced. I like to think that under these influences, the traditional necessity for symbolic protection was becoming balanced by a revival of equally ancient representations of ‘abundance’ and ‘good fortune’. As the piece of fruit became more clearly defined one might almost suggest a slightly decadent evocation of The Garden of Eden – for was it not an apple that provided the original invitation to yield to temptation?