Inverse Perspective

Stavronikita Monastery

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.

Theophanis 16th Century

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.

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Theophanis, 16th Century

Summary

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.

Blessings,

Christine Hales

newchristianicons.com Online Pre-Recorded Icon Writing Classes

Theophanis the Cretan

The Month of February Calendar Saints from the book: “Masterpieces of Early Christian Art”, Richard Temple Gallery, London, UK

February Saints Icon from "Masterpieces of Early Christian Art", Richard Temple Gallery, photo credit: Davi Hare
February Saints Icon from “Masterpieces of Early Christian Art”, Richard Temple Gallery, photo credit: David Hare

Writing Icons is a challenging task in many different ways.  Learning from the past, incorporating the Traditions of the Church, and still being attentive to the spiritual ethos of our time in order to make Icons that are relevant to people today is a tall order.   Icons are more than a spiritual painting

“The Icon is a kind of synthesis of the Spiritual truths and values of Eastern Christianity. It is much more than a religious painting, or a didactic aid. It is a sacramental medium, a meeting point between the Divine uncreated light and the human heart. Its visible, created beauty is aluminous epiphany, a ‘place’ of manifestation, where prayer gains access to the uncreated beauty of God’s grace and truth.” The Glenstal Book of Icons, Praying with the Glenstal Icons, Gregory Collins, OSB, the Liturgical Press

Theophanis the Cretan

As part of an ongoing series of looking at ancient Iconographers, this month the focus is on the Iconographer Theophanis , who painted many of the frescoes and Icons of the Holy Monastery of Stavronikita, Mt. Athos, Greece in the sixteenth Century.

Jesse Fresco; photo credit: Kostas Paschalidis
Jesse Fresco; photo credit: Kostas Paschalidis

A major source for this article is the book “The Cretan Painter Theophanis, the Wall Paintings of the Holy Monastery of Stavronikita” by Manolis Chatzidakis, Published by the Holy Monastery of Stavronikita, Mount Athos, 1986.

Theophanis was an Icon painter, trained in the Cretan tradition of wall and Icon painting. This style of Icon painting is considered to be a continuation of Palaeologan painting. However, the mature work of Theophanis encompassed both the Byzantine tradition and certain motifs from Venetian painting of the period. This contact with foreign Italian models of the 15th Century served to freshen the traditional compositions and add an emotional element without detracting from the essential dogma of the content.

“Theophanis lives within the eternal, changeless mystery of the liturgical life and experience of the Church and at the same time is a sensitive man of his own times. It is clear that he continues the Iconographic tradition that has passed through the splendor of the Palaeologan revival.” Archimandrite Vasileios, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of Stavronikita.

Saint Christopher, photo credit: Kostas Paschalidis
Saint Christopher, photo credit: Kostas Paschalidis

At times, the frescoes are painterly in execution, with less bold lines and rendered by brush strokes. In these works, the transitions of light are more gradual and subtle

In the handling of drapery, the accurate rendering of volume and movement through the interplay of light and dark tones. This creates a sense of rhythm that prevents the drawing from appearing mechanical.

In the Nativity of the Mother of God Theophanis renews the Iconographic type and style in his preference for Palaeologic models.

Nativity of the Mother of God, Photo credit: Kostas Paschalidis
Nativity of the Mother of God, Photo credit: Kostas Paschalidis

 

Icons help us remember the presence of the Trinity is always available to us. They serve as visual reminders that God’s light is perpetually shining on us.

 

Each Iconographer responds to the needs and dictates of his time, while simultaneously brining forward the Traditions of the Early Church. Theophanis is a wonderful example of an Iconographer who created a particular style of Iconography, authentic to his place and time.

May your Icons be blessed, there will be more articles next month.

Christine Simoneau Hales

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