The Sinister Side: How Left–Right Symbolism Shaped Western Art by James Hall - review by Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson

On the Other Hand

The Sinister Side: How Left–Right Symbolism Shaped Western Art


Oxford University Press 460pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

This is a clever, learned and occasionally baffling book that has the great merit of persuading us to look more closely at familiar paintings. Take, for instance, Christ on the Cross by Velázquez. This is perhaps the finest of all crucifixion paintings, and certainly the most interesting. It is one of the few that concentrate entirely on the Christ figure, rather than the surrounding characters in the story, or the scene as a whole. Moreover, Christ has long brown hair, which completely obscures the right side of his face. The tradition is that Velázquez lost his cool when painting the hair and threw his brush at the canvas. I don’t believe this. Nor does James Hall. His explanation is that the painting stresses the incarnation, the physical fact that Jesus is man as well as God. The right or Godly side of the face is ‘blinded and occluded’, while the manly or ‘worldly’ left side remains ‘fully visible and nakedly incarnate’.

Hall tells the story behind the work. He thinks it was commissioned by a powerful royal official, Jerónimo de Villanueva, for a convent of Benedictine nuns in Madrid. He had been in love with its prioress, Teresa Valle de la Corda, before she took her vows, and he founded the

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