Look about for a few minutes on Internet icon sites, or read the beginning of most any popular book on icons, and you will find a great deal made of the notion that icons rely on something called “reverse perspective” or “inverse perspective,” which theoretically opens up the space of an icon so that, as various people phrase it, “the viewer is part of the icon,” or “God in the icon looks at the viewer,” or “the icon looks at the viewer rather than the viewer looking at the icon.” Now if such statements seem to you initially to be nonsense, hold on to that feeling; you are on to something. The truth is that this whole matter of inverse perspective is just another one of those myths associated with the painting of icons, and a rather confused myth at that, because many writing on the topic do not seem to understand that reverse perspective is by no means a characteristic of all icons, or historically limited to icons, nor do all who write about it grasp what reverse perspective really means.
Further, most of those who write about inverse/reverse perspective do not know that the term comes not from some Medieval Slavic or Greek manuscript, but rather from writings from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century:
The Frenchman Gabriel Millet (1899) noted the “birds eye view” approach in medieval mosaics, combined there with the incompatible increase, with growing height, of receding lines. Dmitry V. Ainalov (1900) — in Russia — used the term ‘reversed perspective’ for stylized characteristics in icon painting, attributing it to the inability of the artist to make correct foreshortening (see http://kurt.plommon.se/ljuset/a2.htm — summary of “Inverted Perspective in Visual Art and Controversy: A History of a Critical Concept from the Past Century” [In Swedish], Uppsala University, 2001).
The German art historian Oscar Wulff wrote of umgekehrte Perspektive (reversed perspective) in 1907, and In the 1920s the notion was taken up by the Russian writer Pavel Florensky.
To put it simply, natural, linear perspective means that if we look at a straight road, considering both sides of the road to be lines, then the farther away from us that road gets, the closer the lines will be to one another, until finally, at the horizon they will meet, forming a very elongated “V” with its widest point closest to us, and its narrowest point farthest. We can imagine such a road painted on a flat board.
Inverse or reverse perspective is just the opposite. In reverse perspective, if we were to look at that road, again painted on a flat board, its lines would be widest farther away from us, and though the nearest end of the road would not be visible on the board itself, if we were to follow the lines of its sides as they narrow, we know that theoretically they would meet out in the space where the viewer is standing — at least roughly. So we can see that reverse perspective is just the opposite of normal perspective, thus the name.
Now normal perspective was rediscovered in the Renaissance, though some Roman artists had known and used it over a thousand years earlier. Nonetheless we can say, in general, that normal perspective was not known to most early artists. So those artists had to find a method for showing what they wanted to show of, for example, a group of buildings on a flat surface. They were not as concerned with making it look realistic as they were with just “getting everything in,” with a reasonably harmonious composition. So we will often find lines in old, pre-Renaissance paintings — including some icons — going in a number of directions, sometimes including reverse perspective, but often with multiple-point perspective in which there is no overall focal point of the perspective either inside or outside the painting.
We often do find — particularly in pre-17th century icons — that flat surfaces such as tables, footstools, and rooftops are “tipped” toward the viewer — the back side raised higher than the front — and sometimes the back side will be wider than the front, contrary to normal perspective. However, in spite of the “reverse perspective” myth, this generally does not create a single focal point in the viewer’s space. Nor does it have the supposed effect of making the viewer “part of the icon.” And in some cases, background buildings will have a left-side roof slanting upward, while on the right another building’s roof slants downward, confusing the perspective completely. It takes only a few examinations of such icons by a perceptive viewer to realize that what is characteristic of such icons is not “reverse perspective” in the sense in which it is generally promoted in religious art, but rather abstraction as a virtue. Unfortunately, it is rare for anyone writing about reverse perspective in icons to actually examine its validity; most just repeat it as an assumed fact without the least firsthand critical investigation.
As an example of how this icon “urban myth” is easily spread, we may look to the current Wikipedia article on the topic, which gives a 13th-century painting as an example of reverse perspective. We are told “The throne and footstool in this icon show reverse perspective, with lines converging towards the viewer.” Do they? Let’s look at the image itself:
If we examine the back upright posts of the chair, we see they are both rectangular in shape, and both are oriented toward the left. If this were an example of reverse perspective they would slant toward each other. That on the left would slant toward the right, that on the right toward the left. They do not.
If we look at the front upright posts of the chair, we see that they match the back pair in orientation; both are rectangular in cross section, both slant toward the left, rather than slanting toward one another as would be the case in reverse perspective.
If we look at the chair supports (“feet”), we see that both on the left are oriented toward the right of the painting. The rear support is higher on the panel than the front support. If we draw a line through them, it would slant downward from left to right. We see precisely the same orientation in the chair supports on the right side, which would not be the case in reverse perspective, in which those on the right would form a line slanting downward toward the left.
In addition, both top crosspieces joining the rear uprights to the forward uprights slant uniformly downward to the right, creating theoretical lines that would not meet in the space where a viewer stands.
On the footstool, we see that the platform is wider at the rear than at the front. If we were to draw a line along left and right sides, we see that those lines would theoretically meet on the right side outside the panel. This would be reverse perspective in a sense, but the focal point in this case would be considerably to the the right of a viewer standing in front of the panel. And we find on looking at the feet of the footstool that their positions contradict the supposed reverse perspective of the platform.
As in the case of the chair supports, the footstool supports in back are both higher than those in front, and both back footstool supports are to the upper left of the front foot supports, again both creating, if we draw a line through them, lines that slant downward from left to right. Note particularly that the right rear footstool support is placed to the left of where it would actually be in a “real” footstool — it is not placed at the rear corner, but illogically to the left of it.
What we are seeing here, therefore, is not an image characterized by “reverse perspective, but rather an image characterized, as are many icons, by stylized abstraction of elements. They do not “draw the viewer into the painting” nor do we find that the painting ”looks at the viewer rather than the viewer looking at the painting.” And, quite contrary to being a classic example of reverse perspective, we find this painting is simply an example of stylized abstraction.
What this means is that inverse/reverse perspective is not at all a general characteristic of all icons. What is characteristic is a lack of concern with normal perspective (except in Westernized icons from the 1600s onward), and an effort to arrange the items on the flat surface as best one can, with little attention paid to visual accuracy.
Often, as already mentioned, old icon painters liked to show the tops of things, as though flat surfaces were tilted toward the viewer instead of being upright. That enabled them to show, for example, a person standing on a platform with much of the platform actually seen, instead of a person just standing on a line. There was sometimes an effort to show more than one side of a square or rectangular object, which resulted in odd geometrical forms rather like early versions of David Hockney’s efforts to show objects from multiple sides. And also often (but not always) the size of a figure indicated its importance, or indicated to the viewer the most significant part of an image.
What we do know is that even in so classic and oft-quoted an example as Andrei Rublyov’s “Old Testament Trinity,” the odd perspective does not have the effect that the popularizing writers of recent icon books tell us it has. One does not get the feeling that the focal point of the image is in the viewer’s space. Instead one merely notes that the painter has arranged the planes of the image so that it may be fitted harmoniously into the rectangular space, with planes near the bottom slanting downward, and planes near the top (the building at rear left) slanting up. The eye is drawn into the image not because of “reverse perspective,” not because of the two inward-slanting platforms on which the feet of the side angels rest, but simply because the position of the three figures is reminiscent of actual perspective, with the central figure placed higher on the flat surface than the two side figures, creating a kind of visual hollow space that attracts the eye to the stronger colors of the central angel’s garments. There is a bit more to it that might be said, but none of it has to do with “reverse perspective.” If you doubt that, just cover the lower portion of the icon and examine the result.
What is characteristic of traditional icons is stylization and abstraction. Instead of showing a building or a person as each would appear in reality, icons instead show a simplified, stylized abstraction of a building or a person. That is something that developed over time, with some of the earliest icons being actually more realistic than later images. And again it was the result of artists who were not educated in normal perspective and were not concerned about how a person really looked — because, after all, who knew how Jonah or Adam or Moses, or any of the Old Testament people, really looked — but that did not matter. What mattered was having an abstraction, a figure that could be identified by certain visual characteristics as representing Jonah, or Adam, or Moses; and that, along with an identifying inscription, was considered to be sufficient. Such an abstraction came to be considered, in iconography, how that person was consistently to be painted. The abstraction became the person, so that a believer looking at an icon could say, “That is St. Christopher,” or “That is St. Nikita.”
Over time, abstraction in icons hardened into dogma for some believers, such as the Old Ritualists, who refused to accept the more “realistic” Western European styles adopted in the 1600s by the Russian Court and gradually by the State Orthodox Church as well. They kept the painting of “abstract” icons going through the reign of Tsar Nicholas II and into the 20th century, though not entirely without some Westernizing influence in their art.
Now when you read, as you probably will in some icon books, that icons show saints not in their temporal but in their eternal aspect, “as they are in heaven,” that again is just nonsense, an explanation after the fact to account for why the saints do not look like real people. But it is an effort to explain why most people in icons are just abstractions of people, stylized images (and the mode of stylization varies from period to period and country to country) that represent to the viewer the particular saint or sacred personage whom the viewer wished to petition for this or that favor. So it came to be “understood” as a convention that when a viewer looked into an icon, he or she was looking “into heaven,” because that of course is where the saints were believed to be. That is why one comes across the old saw in so many books that icons are “windows to heaven.”
A similar explanation was contrived for why, when one looked at abstracted scenes representing, for example, the birth of Jesus, they did not look at all realistic even though the event took place on earth, not in heaven. The explanation came to be that one was looking at the event “as it is in eternity,” meaning it no longer is limited to the historical, earthly time and place where it originally happened. It was now a “timeless” event that is always happening. Jesus is always being born; Jesus is always being crucified. So again, the explanation was that in a sense, one was looking at an event in its “heavenly” aspect. Eventually gold leaf was applied to the backgrounds of icons to create a reflective svyet’ or light, representing the light of the heavenly world, the transfigured world, in which there are no shadows. But of course gold was not cheap, even in leaf form, so only those with money could afford such icons. Others had to make do with a “light” consisting simply of paint, or perhaps of tin leaf coated to make it look like gold.
Given the abstraction and distorted perspective of old icons, it is easy to see why, over time, the belief arose that these were characteristic of a heavenly, “transfigured” world in which the normal laws of perspective and form — and even time — no longer applied. First comes the practice — then comes the belief “explaining” the practice.
We see the unnatural perspective of old Russian iconography even in the model sketches used by painters, such as in the example of the Predstavlenie – the Presentation — of the body of the monastic saint Feodosiy Pecherskiy. Look at the lines of the upper portions of the buildings at left and right; look at the impossible viewing angles of the round windows in the central building, all different; look at the two arched windows in the middle of the central building, presented as they would be if simultaneously (and impossibly) viewed from both far left and far right sides; look at the windows in the upper buildings at left and right, again viewed from two completely opposite directions. Now look at the people standing on both sides of the image. Those farther from the viewer are not represented as larger, as would strictly be the case in reversed perspective; instead, their heads are simply represented as higher on the flat suface, which is how they would be seen in normal perspective, but as we have seen, neither normal perspective nor reversed perspective are characteristic of the sketch as a whole. Put simply, nothing makes sense in the mixed, abstract perspective used by the artist. This is typical of old iconography, and it is not “reverse perspective,” but rather impossible perspective. This non-realistic approach eventually came to be explained as representing the “heavenly, transfigured world”, in which the normal laws of perspective do not apply, nor do those of light and shadow.
It is instructive to get a book depicting numbers of icons and to examine the perspective used in each. One will soon find that reverse perspective is by no means a general characteristic of icons, so it is time that notion was dropped, no matter how romantic it may seem from a religious point of view. And as for the explanations given the odd perspective of icons, it is best to just realize that as Timur Novokov writes, “The inverse perspective which we see in ancient icons is not some kind of metaphorical form or image, as certain scholars write: it is the direct vision of a man of that time, his coding system, his translation of the surrounding space onto a flat surface.”
Now, returning to the subject of abstraction in the depictions of people in icons, we can say that even though icon painters had not the slightest factual idea of what people in the Old or New Testments looked like, they thought they did, because the conventions given their abstractions over time became the codes by which those people were to be depicted. The same was applied to other saints. That is why a painter wishing to depict, for example, a saint for the first day of September would look in a manual to find the “code” for the abstraction of that person. And he would find something like:
“And the commemoration of our holy father Simeon the Stylite and archimandrite, grey, beard of Nicholas the Wonderworker, on his head the skhima [monk's cowl] and curly hair, robe of a venerable, and he stands on a pillar, the hand blessing, and in the other a scroll, and on it is written….”
Not exactly a description one could put on a milk container, but it is all an icon painter needed. So it is important to realize that icons were a system of abstractions and conventions, and that painters’ manuals were code books for these abstractions and conventions. When a patron went to an icon painter and said he needed an icon of St Panteleimon, the icon painter knew the code for that saint, and the patron often did too, at least for the more prominent saints, because he had seen them before in churches and on other icons. Nonetheless, painters made mistakes. Sometimes a saint is given an incorrect name, or a name is given an incorrect body. To an illiterate patron that did not make a great deal of difference, as long as he thought he knew who was painted in his icon.
There were other coded conventions in icons. For example, the cloth hanging between two buildings, as in the illustration at the top of this article, indicated that an event was to be understood as taking place in an interior, even though it was not shown in an interior. So if one put, for example, a scene of the birth of Mary before such buildings, the hanging cloth (commonly red) meant the scene was to be interpreted as taking place indoors rather than outdoors. That cloth is called a velum, originally a Latin word meaning a cloth, curtain, awning, or sail.
What does one learn from all this? Just remember that traditional icons were an art of codified abstractions, and of course keep in mind that icon painting has always been a system of reproduction of such coded images. It is not an art of originality. Given such a system, it is no wonder that when mechanical lithography was invented, the sales of painted icons dropped drastically.
Oh yes — one final note: Saints in icons generally do look at the viewer, but that is only because (except in narrative icons) they are painted with eyes looking forward. The reason is that an icon is an object of prayer in which the supplicant addresses the saint. So while the supplicant looks at the icon, the eyes of the painted icon saint look at the supplicant. It has nothing to do with reverse perspective; it just means icon painters knew a saint looking at a viewer would seem more like one interested in answering a viewer’s prayers than one with eyes turned away. And it certainly does not mean that a saint (“the icon”) looks at a viewer rather than the viewer looking at the saint (“the icon”).