The Reverse Perspective in Iconography

One of the difficulties in understanding the iconographic image, particularly ancient Russian icons, is the special way of depicting space and objects on it. Many things on an icon will seem ridiculous, incorrect, and unnatural to a person who is not familiar with the concept of  reverse perspective. This is largely due to the fact that we are accustomed to linear perspective, which became one of the foundations of art in the Renaissance, and we simply do not understand any other way of presenting the space.

The principle of constructing reverse perspective is opposite to the principle of constructing the direct (linear) perspective: the further the object is, the bigger it is. While in the “classical” drawing parallel lines meet behind the object, at the horizon, the reverse perspective has them meet in front of the object, above the picture plane, which creates the impression that the point where the lines meet is inside the viewer.

Using reverse perspective in iconography means transferring the point of presence from the viewer to the icon itself. For example, if one extends the feet of the table on the Rublev’s icon of the Trinity, they will converge exactly where the viewer stands, engaging him in the space of the icon. This clarifies the expression that “it is not we who are looking at the icon: the icon is looking at us”.

The reverse perspective and its properties are distinctly represented on the icon Lamentation upon the Grave.

The foreground of the icon depicts the coffin with the body of Christ resting in it, wrapped in a shroud. The Virgin clings to him and presses her face against her Son’s face. Next to her, Jesus’s favorite disciple, the Apostle John the Theologian, bends to the body of his Teacher. Supporting his chin with his palm, he looks at the face of Jesus Christ with unspeakable sadness.

The sad scene unfolds amidst the iconographic hills painted in the reverse perspective: the  hills radially diverge “inward”.

The reverse perspective has an extremely strong, staggering effect here: space unfolds wide and deep, up and down with such unbridled power that what happens in front of the person looking at the icon takes on a cosmic scale. Mary Magdalene’s lifted up arms seem to connect the location of the Holy Sepulchre with the entire universe.

Reverse perspective is most noticeable on objects with flat edges: furniture, architecture, or books. Take a look at the table on the icon of the Apostle Matthew: you can see several sides at once, which would be impossible if you looked at the object in the “familiar” way.

Another vivid example of using the reverse perspective on an icon is the Gospel in the hands of the Savior or a saint: all edges of the book are exposed to the viewer, each at its own angle that is not connected with the representation of the other edges. The use of such techniques allows the icon painter to develop the image of the depicted saint symbolically, put it in the center of attention, and to attract the viewer’s eye to certain details.

Why did this method get so widespread in iconography?

Many researchers have investigated the use of the reverse perspective in painting. There is even an unscientific point of view that the use of reverse perspective is associated with the artist’s lack of drawing skills. This is not true, of course.

It should be noted that reverse perspective is not artificial for a person; people simply do not notice it. People often see the closest object in reverse perspective. Everyone has a propensity to look and draw in the reverse perspective. Children’s drawings are a good example of this – children draw as they see, and they usually prefer reverse perspective.

By and large, the introduction of reverse perspective cannot be explained by any single reason.

It is an erroneous opinion that it is a thing only in the Christian art, where artists paint the perfect world in contrast to this “fallen” world. To disprove this thesis, there are examples of reverse perspective in ancient art (it was used for stage settings) as well as in Oriental art (India, China, Japan, Persia).

It is also a misconception to think that icons only use reverse perspective: this is not the case at all. In general, one does not encounter reverse perspective on the icon in its purest form. There is always an artistic synthesis of various systems on the icons: there are direct perspective, view from above, panorama, axonometry, reverse perspective, spherical perspective, and tonal perspective. Certain icons show closer objects bigger than those in the background (although both may be painted using reverse perspective). Let’s recall at least the Trinity by Rublev and the images of the Oak of Mamre, the mountain and the architectural structure in the background. Alternatively, take a look at the icon of Epiphany (the Baptism of the Lord), specifically the Jordan River, which is shown as a confluence of two streams. The banks of the river converge on the horizon. The image of the Jordan clearly uses a direct linear perspective, which does not ruin the icon, but blends in seamlessly with the image.

The Rev. Pavel Florensky’s opinion on this issue is noteworthy. He believed that Byzantine and Old Russian artists deliberately used reverse perspective, because it allowed them to communicate the full and profound message of the story to the viewer more clearly.

Symbolism, not realism, has always been the principle of the icon. Reverse perspective on icons helps to depict a different reality – the one that is beyond our eyes. It is quite common to compare the icon with the window from the upper world into the world below, and this impression is best achieved by reverse perspective. Thanks to reverse perspective, the space of the icon becomes wide, as if it were floating and unfolding in front of a person.

Daria Chechko

About the author

A philologist; an author and designer of St. Elisabeth Convent's website; a sister of mercy and a member of the Catalog of Good Deeds team.

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