A Matter of Perspective


During my recent foray into iconography – I spent a week studying with a Master iconographer and a week discovering how little use my hands are in certain circumstances. But among the most fascinating aspects of the week was a lecture that focused largely on the technique of “inverse perspective” that is part of the artistic language of icons. Essentially, inverse perspective does just the opposite of traditional Renaissance art with its “vanishing point” perspective. That “vanishing point” technique enabled gifted artists to render remarkable portrayals of nature, acheiving a life-like appearance (and more). In that technique things portrayed in the painting seem to disappear into the distance – the lines of perspective closing on each other within the painting, finishing in a single “vanishing point.”

It is the inverse of this, and more, that forms the artistic grammar of the icon. The lines of perspective do not converge into a vanishing point – instead they grow ever further apart. Thus the “Window to Heaven” looks into a view which grows ever larger rather than ever smaller and further away. It makes somethings look quite peculiar at first. Buildings have a strange, almost eery shape as you see two walls clearly before you, moving ever wider, where perspective as we normally see it should show only one. It is like a young child who draws a house and instead of remembering that if you draw the view of one side you should not draw the view of the other (since it is out of view), he draws both sides, because he knows both sides and wants to paint all of the house.

There is something similar at work in the grammar of icons. This inverse perspective also eliminates shadows – shapes are not revealed by the darkness that surrounds them, but the “lights” that are added in each progressive stage of the painting – those things that are closer receiving the brightest and last of the lights.

This inverse perspective also makes faces seem quite strange. Noses appear narrow; lips small as we confront them head-on. But the forehead and hair seem enlarged as we see not only the face but both sides of the head as well. Many of these components of reverse perspective have been explained as representing a “spiritualization” of the person (small nose being less sensual; small lips meaning silence, etc.) However I was told these are incorrect descriptions of what is essentially just the effect of inverse perspective.

During one lecture we studied an icon of St. John of Kronstadt. The most fascinating moment for me came as the image of the icon (we were looking at a slide show) was projected on the top of a photograph of St. John (he was a 20th century saint). The similarity was quite obvious – you could clearly see that this icon was not an “idealization” of St. John. But the face that clearly was his took on different qualities as inverse perspective showed what the photograph could not, and St. John, if you will, grew larger where normal perspective would have expected him to be vanishing.

This grammar is also the language of fulfillment. In saying this I do not repeat the lecture but now offer my own ruminations on what I was seeing. Our world in its fallen state is ever disappearing from us, hiding from us, shielding us from knowledge and enclosing life with its shadows. Thus the face of another, instead of revealing the person often acts in the original sense of the word persona – it is a mask. We do not know what lies behind or within it. We see a world that is not fulfilled, but a world that is disappearing and masking its reality.

The work of God in this world is like the hand of the iconographer. Like the image of St. John, the face becomes revelation, an encounter with Person in the sense made known to us through the theology of the Trinity. Under the hand of God the shadows of the world are filled with light – what had been ignorance becomes known. What was once whispered is now “shouted from the rooftops.”

We ourselves, once filled with secrets and areas of darkness, come increasingly into the light. With the disappearance of the darkness of sin, the fullness that is who we are as Persons begins to be made manifest. Obviously the clearest examples of this are to be found in the saints, and yet this same sanctification is at work in all of God’s re-creation.

As painful as confession can sometimes be – it is utterly necessary to our well-being. Light must shine in the darkness if the darkness is to be transformed and we are to find the fullness of God. St. Paul’s wonderful description of the healing of creation at the Last Day, has it this way:

…the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:21-23).

In the traditional Anglican Book of Common Prayer reference is made to our life after death as an “entrance into the larger life.” It is a marvelous expression, one that is itself filled with inverse perspective and revelatory of the nature of the life we are being given.

And it is also a way we may frequently recognize the work of God. Where darkness grows and shadows loom, the hand of God is often being turned aside (though He will not be refused forever). Where light is entering and shadows disappearing the resurrection has begun, if only in faint hints. St. Paul’s comparison was to a woman in labor. There is pain, (a “groaning” in his usage) but a sudden deliverance. And so it shall be. So much that seems lost in darkness and forever impenetrable will be suddenly revealed. For some a revelation that will bring a shout of “Alleluia,” for others only the frightful appearance of the light. Not that the light should be frightful – but that they had come to prefer darkness to the light.

And I think we may apply this understanding to many things. The work of the Church should not be “pinched” by the narrowness of an ethnicity – rather that which is ethnic should be revealed in a wholeness that finally fullfills what would otherwise have been lacking. For that which is particular is not contrary to God, but without God it collapses back on itself. With God, the perspective becomes inverse, and the particular becomes a liberation, a fullness – something that though particular can no longer be contained.

C.S. Lewis (borrowing from his friend Charles Williams) made this distinction between “England” and “Logres,” his name for England fullfilled (in his novel That Hideous Strength). Under the hand of God all things will be offered such a fullness, to become part of a landscape that is ever greater rather than a landscape that is ever vanishing. God grant us such a fullness, both within ourselves and in everything about us. As the children cried in Lewis’ Narnia, “Higher up! and further in!”

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


4 responses to “A Matter of Perspective”

  1. ole rocker Avatar
    ole rocker

    “the particular becomes a liberation, a fullness – something that though particular can no longer be contained”

    Yes! And this will help me in my own personal quest to continue to turn back to Orthodoxy …

    I am indeed glad I found your blog spot. Father, bless …

  2. Mary Lowell Avatar

    Excellent post, Father! Great insight offered here about how the artistry of the icon is describing more than what we think we see, i.e., what we know: “the back of the house” while standing at the front door. Conventional perspective is an illusion of space on a one-dimensional plane. The vanishing point is an artistic device for rendering the artist’s own vision of the world, not a grammar for unfolding and reading the text of the Godhead’s mystery among us in flesh.

    The icon is art plus: art that not only includes all that we know, but invites an encounter with that which we don’t know, can’t know, without relationship to persons and events depicted in the icon as “Today!” It is useful and instructive to gaze upon the icons, but the “window” opens when we close our eyes before them in prayer and hold conversation with their prototypes in fullness that cannot be contained.

    I look forward to the ensuing discussion on this little gem you have launched in cyber-space.


  3. rdreusebios1 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Father Bless,
    Thank you ever so much for this fascinating rumination on a subject that utterly fascinates me.
    His unworthy servant,

  4. […] FATHER STEPHEN: “The work of God in this world is like the hand of the iconographer” …. (fatherstephen) […]

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