Florensky (1882-1937) was one of the main Russian theologians
of the twentieth century. His principal work is The Pillar
and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve
Letters, which appeared in 1924. After the revolution, in
1918, Florensky was named scholarly secretary for a commission
created to reflect on the appropriate fate for the Orthodox Church
icons preserved at the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius. Should they
be considered mere objects of worship or do they have some other
interest that would make them worth saving? Florensky drafted
several texts for this commission, and in particular Inverse
Perspective. This opuscule turns inside out the Realist complaint
one would be tempted to bring against medieval Russian icons.
Florensky maintains that such icons offer a vision of things that
is in greater conformity with reality than the linear-perspective
representations that have taken over Western art since the Renaissance.
Icons and Perspective
Florensky points out right away the techniques that lead icons
to contravene the laws of perspective. First, icons show together
surfaces that those laws do not allow to be seen at the same time
(the facade and side walls of a building; the four edges of the
Bible; the crown of the head, the temples, and the ears seen straight-on,
etc.). In addition, the complementary surfaces that one is led
to hide when using perspective appear in “inverse perspective”--that
is to say, their lines do not converge toward the horizon but,
on the contrary, diverge. The second major transgression of the
laws of perspective comes from the representation’s polycentrism:
each part of the design seems to be seen by a different eye.
It is not possible, Florensky states, to see in these transgressions
some clumsy mistakes on the part of the painter. Indeed, far from
glossing over them, the painter underscores them through the use
of specific techniques. Those surfaces whose presence violates
the laws of perspective are represented in very bright colors.
For example, an edge from the Bible is often colored in vermillion
red and appears as the most luminous place in the icon. As for
the polycentrism, it is highlighted through the play of shadows
and light: there is, in the icon, no unique source of light but,
rather, lights of various origins that often contradict one another.
Perspective and Truth
have often led people to think that the representations found
in icons did not conform to reality. Thus, the historian of painting
Alexandre Benois, who is quoted by Florensky, attributes their
lack of perspective to an astonishing failure of observation:
“To think that the late Roman and Byzantine painters had
never seen buildings as they are in nature.” Inverse
Perspective proposes to call into question the view that
would see in perspective the expression of “the nature of
things” and, thereby, the “absolute condition for
In the first place, Florensky notes that perspectival representation
dominates only a rather brief period in the history of art taken
as a whole: entire civilizations do not submit to it. For example,
the characters in Egyptian bas-reliefs are represented with shoulders
and chest head on, the legs and face in profile. The Greek art
of Antiquity does not make use of perspective. And as for medieval
representations, they were always done in inverse perspective.
Once again, it
is not possible to chalk such characteristics up to ignorance.
The civilizations in question possessed the (indeed quite simple)
mathematical tools required to build up a view in perspective.
Florensky cites Albrecht Dürer’s Manual of Measurement,
which was published in 1525 and was one of the first treatises
on linear perspective. Dürer writes that Euclidean geometry--which
was quite well known during the Middle Ages--suffices for one
to conceive the rules of perspective and that, on this score,
his treatise offers no new contributions of its own. If it is
not progress in knowledge that establishes the use of perspective
in art, how is one to explain its advent?
Perspective and Religious Feeling
Florensky maintains that the source of perspectival representation
is to be found in theatrical representation. He bases himself
here on Vitruvius, who wrote that perspective was initially employed
for the sets of Aeschylus’s tragedies. Likewise, the art
of Giotto is said to have been born of his taste for the sets
of mystery plays. Now, according to Florensky, the development
of theater reveals a weakening of religious feeling: the tragedies
of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and then Euripides mark the gradual advent
of a “secular vision” of the world. And in the medieval
mysteries, the properly religious action becomes a mere pretext
for representing bodies and landscapes. One may note, moreover,
that Anaxagoras, the first theorist of perspective according to
Vitruvius, is precisely the one who denied the divinity of heavenly
bodies. As for Giotto and his disciples, it is in Florence, a
city that started to “propagate a wave of secularization,”
that perspectival painting developed. In this way, according to
Florensky, the absence or the presence of perspective in the art
of an era is ruled by the force of the religious feeling that
inhabits it: perspective sets in when the spirit of the Renaissance
begins to blow.
Perspective and Natural Vision
what constitutes the essence of the religious is the ambition
to achieve objectivity: the religious sphere pertains to a “metaphysics
that rises above the person” and is opposed to a view of
things that rests on “the individual judgment of a particular
person with his particular point of view at a precise moment in
time,” a view to which perspective sets out to give form.
Now, according to Florensky, such a subjective view paradoxically
is in no way the spontaneous view of mankind. That is why it is
in no way appropriate to see in perspective “any kind of
simple, natural vision of the world inherent to the human eye
as such.” Florensky points out that children’s drawings,
which generally obey inverse perspective, “are highly reminiscent
of the drawings of the Middle Ages.” He also cites, on this
score, the philosopher Ernst Mach, who wrote: “I remember
well that, at the age of nearly three, drawings that followed
perspective seemed to me to be altered representations of objects.
I could not understand why the painter had made a table so large
on one side and so narrow on the other. A true table seemed to
me just as large on the far end as on the near one, because my
eye was calculating independently of me. That one might not look
at a table on a plane as a plane covered with paint, that this
representation might signify a table and ought to be represented
as extending into the background, that is what I did not understand.
I consoled myself with the idea that entire peoples did not understand
it either.” As for Dürer, Florensky notes that the
apparatuses described in his Manual of Measurement that
were designed to offer the means to draw in perspective were a
product of pure mechanics and, in one case, did not even make
use of the eye.
In truth, perspective is always learned. It pertains to a form
of training that goes against one’s natural way of viewing.
“Neither the eye nor the hand of a child or even of an adult,
unless they have been expressly taught to do so, will submit to
this sort of training or take into account the rules of unitary
perspective,” Florensky writes. “It is only by losing
their immediate connection with the world that children abandon
inverse perspective and submit to the schema that is being drummed
into them.” Its characteristic of being against nature ensures
that perspective is always imposed only slowly and with difficulty:
in Europe, “five hundred years of education of society were
required for the eye and the hand to become accustomed to perspective.”
The main interest
of Florensky’s text is certainly the link it establishes
between the dominant worldviews of a given society and its artistic
representations--nay, its very sensations. Mankind assuredly has,
for Florensky, a natural way of viewing things that manifests
itself in art and in perception. And yet, despite all, Inverse
Perspective ends up showing that, over the course of history,
the transformation of the way in which society conceives the world
can gradually lead to a profound upheaval in the spontaneous way
things are viewed.
Paul. La perspective inversée/L’iconostase
et autres écrits sur l’art. Trans. Françoise
Lhoest. Lausanne: L’Âge d’homme, 1992.
Florensky, Pavel. The Pillar and Ground of
the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters.
Trans. and annotated Boris Jakim with an introduction by Richard
F. Gustafson. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Grabar, André. Byzantine Painting:
Historical and Critical Study. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. Geneva:
Switzerland: Skira, 1953.
_____. Christian Iconography. A Study of its Origins.
London: Henley, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.
Zenkovsky, Basile. Histoire de la philosophie
russe. 2 vols. Paris: Gallimard, 1992.