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III

ICONOGRAPHIC REVERSE PERSPECTIVE

 

As stated in the preceding section, before we take up the further analysis of icons of the Middle Ages, it would be well to review iconographic perspective because it is unique and unusual. It is an integral part of the icon composition, especially when seen in connection with dynamic symmetry. This iconographic perspective is singularly unique to Byzantine icons, and understanding its characteristics is essential to iconography.

Byzantine painting utilizes a unique perspective proportion in its composition. Commonly the perspective can be seen to be foreshortened, and is commonly referred to as "reverse" perspective.

The foreshortened view of the paintings, frescoes and mosaics found in Byzantine churches does not distort them when seen from below or from a distance. (See Figure III-l) This is of extreme interest and artistic importance. The figure, as illustrated below, shows the perspective the viewer sees when inside of a church. The walls upon which many frescoes and mosaics are made are often constructed upon a curved surface. This strongly enhances the viewer's sensation of being included in the composition. The use of figures in the frontal, three-quarters facial position, and the use of multiple vanishing points or points-of-view, decorate the walls like a tapestry. The total effect is to place the viewer within this tapestry which has been created without structurally penetrating the surface.

 

How iconographic reverse perspective works

In order to more easily understand the unusual reverse perspective of Byzantine icons, a review of some of the principles of ordinary, normal, perspective is needed.

Perspective is a technical feature of pictorial composition, not an artistic one. In ordinary perspective, the artist has the use of a general optical principle which enables him to correctly render natural appearance. Perspective is a law of proportion in which the lines of vision seem to come to a point on the horizon when we see something. This is called the vanishing point. Our eyes and brain record what we see in our line-of-sight. The visual images imprint themselves upon the retina behind the eye and our brain interprets the image. The science of visual optics demonstrates that the retina actually records our images upside down, while the brain registers them right-side up. This interesting phenomenon need not concern us here, but does help explain how our eyes really work, when they see things naturally, without artificial distortions.

Figure III-2. Normal perspective: Schematic of the side view.

 

In normal perspective the fundamental concepts can best be explained if you imagine yourself looking through a Picture Plane (See P.P. above) at a formal garden with a small pool flanked by lamp posts. The point of observation, represented by the eye, is the point at whicn the visual light rays from the objects in the scene meet the eyes. It is called the Station Point (See S.P. above) The imaginary plane upon which the view is theoretically formed by the piercing points of the visual rays of the scene (the viewer's line of vision), is termed the Picture Plane.(See P.P. above) The Picture Plane plays an essential role in icon composition and icon reverse perspective.

To continue, objects of the same height intercept a greater height on the Picture Plane when close to it than when far away. For example, rays from the first lamp post intercept a distance of between 1 and 2 on the Picture Plane, while the rays from the second lamp post which is actually the same height, intercept a distance of between 3 and 4 on the Picture Plane, consequently, they appear to be shorter and smaller.

In the frontal view (Figure III-3 below), notice that the lines of the pool and lamp posts converge to the center of vision, or Vanishing Point (See V.P. below). This point is located on the horizon directly in front of the viewer.

Figure III-3. Normal perspective: Schematic of the frontal view.

 

These side and frontal schematic views illustrate the accepted lines of ordinary, normal perspective drawing as defined by today's artistic conventions. But this was not always the case.

 

How iconographic reverse perspective came to be

Although normal or ordinary perspective was not unknown prior to the fifteenth century various areas of the world preferred their own type of art and perspective for their own cultural reasons. Among these was the Byzantine attitude toward art. Byzantine iconographic perspective proportion was a unique rendering of perspective we now term reverse perspective, It was, and still is, the use of multiple vanishing points in a single composition coming forward toward instead of away from the viewer. Although this is termed reverse perspective it really can more often be characterized as a "poly-perspective," quite unconventional to the viewer not familiar with this type of perspective composition.

What iconographic reverse perspective is in comparison to our contemporary visual perspective in everyday life is that the vision literally stops at the icon panel - the Picture Plane. There is no background distance or depth-of-field to the pictorial representation of the Picture Plane except that which is painted on its surface. This is further enhanced, or heightened, by the use of a solid gold background and the use of a three-quarters view of the faces in the painting. These create different, distorted sense of space. These figures seem to be accepting the viewer into their world.

When there are landscapes and buildings in the composition they are drawn in reverse perspective so that they draw the viewer into the Picture Plane. The viewer has a sense of continuing forward motion.

The use of several vanishing points in an iconographic composition is the artist's attempt to establish a system of priorities and to establish a rapport with the viewer. Reverse perspective has a calming effect on the viewer and makes him concentrate and renders him attentive to the message of the icon, fresco or mosaic. It is as though man was held at the entrance of a road, which, instead of being lost in space opens up onto the infinity of plentitude. This focal point is counterbalanced by rhythmically integrated groups of figures, architectural motifs, or a landscape.

The Byzantine artists employed deliberate and minutely planned contrivances of this nature in order to work out these reverse perspectives in terms of optics and geometry. This perspective was used in order to make the human figures in the foreground appear smaller than those in the background when the latter were more important than the former. (See Figure III-4 below)

Figure III-4. Christ Among the Doctors

Icon, end of the fifteenth century, Museum of History and Architecture, Novgorod, Russia. Stiffened canvas and egg tempera.

 

Understanding this unique approach, and careful and repeated analyses, has made a great impression on me. It has significantly enhanced my dedication to icon-writing, and has inspired me to open this dialogue with my fellow iconographic devotees.

 

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