I recently gave an online Icon writing retreat where one of the main topics covered was inverse perspective. This highly important topic isn’t often covered in icon writing classes, so there was a lot of research involved.
Inverse perspective is one of the compositional elements that cause an Icon to differ from a religious painting. In addition to practical drawing information, the theological meanings of inverse perspective were also covered.
Inverse perspective is one of the six different forms of perspective used in Byzantine Iconography. Commonly you can see this in the way that buildings, chairs, tables, etc. are drawn in Byzantine icons. In these, the lines are drawn so that instead of converging on the horizon, the lines come outward and converge on the viewer. They actually form a conical shape in space that brings the events in the icon outward to envelop and engage the viewer. People are also drawn so that they appear to be coming outwards towards us, drawing them into our space to engage with us visually as well as prayerfully.
The Icon As A Window to Heaven
In a sense, perspective in the icon is the opposite of Renaissance perspective where the viewpoint converges on the horizon. The icon is a window where we have access to the Kingdom of God, God’s perspective, to His presence. In the Icon, the scene or saint shines out towards the viewer who opens himself to receive it. In inverse perspective space itself becomes active instead of the observer, who is, in fact acted upon.
According to George Kordis, author of Color As Light in Byzantine Painting, It’s customary in the tradition of Byzantine art For rhythm to be built on the foundation of intersecting axes which are usually very well hidden within the structure of the figures and landscape.
The key to understanding the Byzantine language of visual art is its approach to movement and perspective in drawing.
In the Byzantine tradition the sense of depth is less important than those of width and height here the foreground dominates.
Byzantine artists understood pictorial space as developing in front of the surface of the painting as opposed to behind it. This causes the viewer to be encountered by God’s Presence, to be drawn into engagement with the Divine.
The Byzantine artist intended for there to be a sense of relationship between the depicted figures and the viewer, as opposed to a sense of distance or detachment from the viewer, which occurs in the western tradition of naturalism. The Byzantine approach to drawing is focused on the unification of pictorial in real space. In the Byzantine tradition, pictorial space is not understood as independent or autonomous, but instead as developing and projecting in front of the surface of the painting in such a way as to be identified with the real space of the viewer.
In inversed perspective, the lines do not meet at a vanishing point behind the canvas, but at a point in front of the canvas. Thus, there is no depth, and space is reduced. In this sense the icon is the opposite of a renaissance painting. It is not a window through which the mind must go to have access to the world represented. Is rather a place where a presence is encountered. In the icon, the represented world shines out toward the person who opens himself to receive it. Inverse perspective, space itself becomes active instead of the observer who in fact is acted on. This is just a quick look into the subject. However, if you wish to learn more about it, I suggest you take the pre-recorded Icon Writing Class called “Epiphany”. During that class you will write the Epiphany icon and learn much more about how inverse perspective manifests in the art of icon writing.
Until next month, Please stay safe and remember to pray for all those suffering from Covid.