• Unknown artist (China): Lady with a Rosary, 17th century; hanging scroll: ink and color on paper; BAMPFA, gift of James Cahill.

Five Tables of What We Hold

Snap a photograph of someone in our networked world, and chances are good that if they are holding something, it is a smartphone. Looking back at the history of images, however, there is a much vaster array of objects and meanings embedded in what we hold in our hands. Rulers easily wield symbols of power, like the baton grasped by Prince Thomas of Savoye-Carignan in Anthony Van Dyck and Paul Pontius’s 1636 engraving, or the orb in Queen Elizabeth I’s triumphant hand in an 1816 mezzotint. Piety may or may not be the point of the prayer beads dangling from the fingers of a beautiful lady in a seventeenth-century Chinese hanging scroll, but the industry of freed slaves is definitely referenced in the knitting held by Sojourner Truth in her cartes-de-visite.