The reason behind the typical papal gesture of hand to bless millions of people throughout the past centuries has been found out to be due to the ulnar nerve damage of the first pope St. Peter’s and not the the median nerve as previously thought, said new anatomy scientists from New York.
Dr. Bennett Futterman, a professor at NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine and former orthopedic surgeon, said the so-called "hand of benediction" — a half-open hand, with pinky and ring finger remaining curled or flexed to the palm — was due to an injury to St. Peter’s ulnar nerve. "There’s always a controversy about this because some sources say one thing and others say another – the students always ask questions about it," says Futterman suggesting that it should change, just before the Papal visit to the US slated later this year.
Though Pope Francis often bless giving a thumbs up or with a hand that is fully open, Futterman notes that many past popes assumed the traditional hand of benediction as depicted in thousand-year-old frescoes and sculptures.
"Peter, the first pope, had an ulnar nerve injury and everyone copied him," said Futterman, whose study has been published in the journal Clinical Anatomy. "Out of respect for St. Peter, the other popes followed with that same pattern."
The ulnar nerve runs from the elbow to the pinky side of the hand, powering the muscles that allow the fourth (ring) and fifth (pinky) fingers to stretch the palm full. While many anatomy texts cite an injury to the median nerve, which stretches from the shoulder area through the tips of four fingers, as the reason for the first papal benediction gesture.
The earlier speculation was that early popes were trying to make a fist but could not do so because a median nerve injury prevented the index (middle) and long (pointer) fingers and thumb from curling toward the palm.
Since papal blessings were intended to be given with an open hand, rather than a fist, this theory gained prominence, he said. "A fist has always been a symbol of war – it’s never a positive position," says Futterman. "No holy man would ever bless the faithful, a crowd, or followers, by making a fist."
To prove his hypothesis, Futterman studied statues, icons, and tomb paintings to assess the hand postures of various popes, and researched earlier blessing postures used by Jewish high priests, later copied by early Christians who blessed as the Vulcan or ‘Spock’ gesture in a V-shaped open hand position. "Later, Peter was trying to do that – he would have blessed people the way he knew. But if you have an ulnar nerve injury, you can’t spread your fingers and you can’t extend your pinky and ring finger."
There was conflicting information in anatomy texts and lectures, said Futterman who recently worked with NYITCOM students on a new anatomic dissection approach to the brachial plexus, a major network of nerves originating in the spine and passing through the neck and arm. He also said his theory need more study as "there’s some evidence beginning to emerge that this may have been a leprosy infection affecting the ulnar nerve."