Reversed Perspective – Bradley Jersak

Vanishing Lines

I had coffee yesterday with a friend of mine, Bill Thiessen, who led Eden and me on a life-altering journey to Jamaica and Haiti three decades ago. We were reflecting on aging, as I am about to turn 60, and he is now nearly 90.

Bill reminded me how important hope is. He spoke of seeing “beyond the horizon” or life’s “vanishing point.” He might not have known this, but “vanishing point” is a loaded phrase for Orthodox believers because, in our icons, we see the strange phenomenon of a reversed vanishing point.

From a technical point of view, the reverse perspective can make the icons look awkward since great art (such as DaVinci’s “Last Supper”) and our real-life eyes experience life and observe the vanishing point ahead of us on the distant horizon. Let me show you. Here’s DaVinci’s painting:

Now here’s an illustration that demonstrates DaVinci’s attention to the vanishing point. It disappears in the horizon behind Jesus while also centering our attention on his face:

Featured in da Vinci and the Renaissance Gallery 2019

DaVinci’s vanishing points are fundamental to his greatness as an artist.

Reversed Perspective

But in Eastern Orthodox iconography, the vanishing point is often a point of “bepuzzlement” (a word I learned from Bill). Its reversed perspective is… dysregulating? That’s because the vanishing lines don’t converge on the horizon ahead of us but at or behind the one viewing the icon!
The best example is probably Rublev’s “Trinity” (originally titled “The Hospitality of Abraham” because it depicts the story found in Genesis 18).
You can especially see what I’m describing if you trace where the edges of the chairs and the angels’ feet point—right at you!
It’s not a matter of poor art composed in an era of artistic ignorance.  The problem only occurs in us if we view the icons as modern literalists. We need to approach the Trinity (the doctrine and the icon) with spiritual eyes. When we do, we might discover what the Spirit and the icon are up to.
1. First, by reversing the perspective, the composition revolves around the central feature: the bowl at the center of the table. Some see a chalice, symbolizing the Eucharist, but I believe the original icon has the calf’s head in there, recalling the hospitality meal in the Genesis account:

Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared and set it before them, and he stood by them under the tree while they ate. 

This should remind us of one feature in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal sons in Luke 15:
23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate, 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
Second, the reversed perspective of the Eastern icons calls us to the reversed perspective of repentance—the invitation to see, and to think, and to reorient our whole lives from a different perspective. The conversion of our hearts and lives may be seen in the inversion of our perspective of the whole world.
Finally, unlike DaVinci’s Last Supper, Rublev’s reverse perspective pulls us toward the table, not merely to observe the meal but to join it. It says to us, “Come to the Table.” There is a table prepared for you (Psalm 23), a banquet of grace and goodness where all are welcome, where our alienation is reversed, and we experience our belonging and belovedness.
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The above thoughts are not original to me. I learned them from Abp. Lazar Puhalo, both personally and through his book, The Icon as Scripture


Picture of Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Bradley Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More