Notes on the Theology of Icons, Part 4: Reverse Perspective

Perhaps the most interesting visual and theological feature of Orthodox icons is their use of reverse perspective.

As we look at paintings most of us expect to find the painter using linear perspective, where a vanishing point is placed at or close to the center of the painting. All lines converge on this point at a distant horizon. This use of "perspective" gives the two dimensional picture a sense of three-dimensional depth.

Icons, by contrast, use reverse perspective. In reverse perspective the vanishing point isn't placed "within" the picture. Rather, the vanishing point is placed at the site of the viewer with the lines of perspective expanding out from the viewer as one "enters" the world of the picture. This reversal is hard to describe with words so I made the following slide to try to illustrate the point:

In the pictures above the focal point is the red star. On the left is linear perspective. Here the lines of convergence surround the viewer and converge on a focal point "within" the picture. This creates the effect we are all familiar with when looking at paintings, the sense of looking "through" the picture as if looking out a window. On the right is reverse perspective. The focal point is "outside" the picture, placed on the observer. The lines of the picture move out from the picture to converge upon the viewer.

This use of reverse perspective is one of the reasons that square objects in icons seem oddly distorted. The 3D projection on the 2D surface using reverse perspective creates a different shape than what we are used to with linear perspective. This picture from Wikipedia illustrates the differences of this projection, with the projection of linear perspective on the left and reverse perspective on the right:

What is the visual effect of using reverse perspective? The effect mainly creates a sense that the space of the icon is "opening up." A few slides here to help illustrate this point:

Let's take that most famous icon, Rublev's Hospitality of Abraham, a depiction of the Trinity:

One can see in the icon that the perspective isn't linear:

Note how the white arrows, showing lines of linear perspective attempting to converge on a central vanishing point, go against the grain of the icon. Rather, the lines of the icon are expanding outward with the use of reverse perspective:

This creates a sense of the space "opening up." Note how, if linear perspective were used, the picture closes in, collapsing upon the vanishing point:

But with the use of reverse perspective the world of the icon opens up:

I hope you've enjoyed this little survey of reverse perspective. Now the question can be asked: What is the theological significance of this use of reverse perspective?

Three related answers present themselves. First, recall that icons are "Windows into Heaven." Consequently, the world the icon is trying to depict is considered to be more real than this world. Ontologically larger, we might say. Thus, the use of reverse perspective helps communicate this truth. As we stare into the icon the world we are looking into isn't shrinking or vanishing. Rather, it is expanding and growing. I like to call this The Wardrobe Effect, borrowed from the scene in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the children move into and through a small space (the Wardrobe) to emerge into this vast expansive space (Narnia). An icon is trying to create, via reverse perspective, this same effect upon us. Heaven is more real and larger than this world.

A second theological feature of reverse perspective is that the focal point sits upon the viewer. This changes the power relations between the icon and the viewer. In linear perspective we look at the icon. The focal point is "inside" the icon. In reverse perspective the icon is looking at you. You are the focal point. This reversal mirrors what was said earlier: The world of the icon is more real than this world. Specifically, with this reversal of focal points, you are the picture and Heaven is the watcher. This world is less real, a mere picture, to the reality of Heaven.

A final related point is how the reverse perspective marginalizes the viewer. In linear perspective you are the center of the cosmos. All horizons move out from you, the visual reference point. But with reverse perspective you are placed on the edge. As the focal point you are the small, distant, speck on the horizon in the view of Heaven. You are not large, but small. Not central, but peripheral. The reverse perspective of the icon is a theological assault upon our ego and pride.

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3 thoughts on “Notes on the Theology of Icons, Part 4: Reverse Perspective”

  1. Addendum:
    It helps to have friends more intelligent than you. After an e-mail exchange with an ACU colleague I did some further digging into reverse perspective and would like to add an asterisk to the post.

    Although what I have written agrees with various scholarly accounts of reverse perspective within Orthodox iconography there does exist some scholarly debate on the subject. The debate swirls around two issues. First, the word “reverse” implies some knowledge and intentional inversion of linear perspective. Given that early Orthodox iconographers did not have a full understanding of linear perspective the notion of their intentional “reversal” of it is misleading. To be clearer some prefer the label Byzantine perspective rather than reverse perspective. This change of terms makes the historical ordering of the two perspectives more clear (i.e., it would not make sense to have a “reverse” perspective coming before the linear it was inverting).

    A related debate swirls around if all the theological notions drawn from the use of Byzantine perspective were fully intended by the icon writers.

    To summarize, the post does accurately represent a view of the use of perspective by Orthodox iconographers with the associated theological implications. However, the reader should be aware that academic debate exists on this topic.

  2. Hi Richard,

    I can't speak to the artistic question, since I couldn't draw a decent picture to save my life.

    But I do know that when I carefully examined John 18 that the same reverse perspective and the same sophistication belied by a deceptively simple surface presentation of the writing left me wondering the same thing as you note is debated by art scholars: Did "writers" working at that time really possess the kind of understanding--whether intuitive or explicit--seemingly indicated by their "writing?"

    I can't answer, but if I knew an Orthodox historian I'd sure ask her if she's thought about it!

    Thanks for the post.


  3. Thanks for these insights into iconography. I do believe intuition played a role here for the reasons you mentioned in your addendum. Seems to me it shows our Source at work.

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