Friday, May 04, 2007

The Medieval Artist and Perspective

~Daniel has an excellent essay on rediscovering the genius of medieval artists and the soul of story.
We are so used to linear perspective that we unthinkingly identify it with realism; to modern eyes, a "realistic" painting is one painted in linear perspective. Some may argue that the resemblance of such a painting to a photograph is proof of its realism. But this is circular; had we not already been conditioned to see perspectival painting as realistic, we might never have accepted photography as realistic either. I can imagine an ancient Egyptian sage inventing a camera, and upon discovering that it did not always show the human figure in profile concluding that it did not work very well.

A perspectival painting is, in many ways, not realistic at all. Some of these ways are obvious. The subjects do not move. Neither can the person looking at the painting move, or the failure of objects within the painting to move in relation to each other will reveal its artifice. The frame, usually rectangular, is unlike the actual periphery of our vision. And a perspectival painting is the view of a Cyclops; images do not double into two transparent parts when the two eyes focus on something nearer or farther away. Nor do they blur or sharpen dramatically; in reality, an object inches from the eyes and an object ten feet away cannot be seen in detail at the same time. A perspectival painting accurately presents what a man will see if he looks through a frame, with one eye closed, not moving, at something that does not move and that is far enough away for his eyes to focus on it in its entirety. Not surprisingly, the trick box that Filippo Brunelleschi invented to demonstrate his discovery of the technique created all of these conditions!

But there are more important ways in which a perspectival painting is unrealistic; it presents things as they are seen to be, rather than as they are known to be. It does not accommodate the vision of the mind's eye. Children draw in the same manner as cultures that have not adopted perspective in their art; they draw what is important. If they know of something present on the other side of a wall, or beyond the scope of their vision, they will draw it anyway if it is necessary to what they seek to communicate on paper. And its relative importance to that message will determine its size and placement in the drawing. This is the natural manner of composition in human artistry, whereas perspective is something that must be learned.

In the mediaeval mind, hierarchy, rhythm and number are the fundamental laws of the world. Iconography was painted and sculpted in the same manner that the Bible was read and the natural world was observed; symbolism was the animating principle. The literal is only one of four senses of reality; the allegorical, tropological and anagogical senses are equally real, and equally necessary to paint and sculpt.

1 comment:

Edmund C. said...

Seems to me that Daniel is onto something. I'd extend it even further: there is a direct correlation between the insistence upon perspective in painting and upon empiricism in general. If we believe that the "real" extends only to what we can verify by our senses, then naturally, perspectival painting is the way to go. But, as medievals (and one would hope, Catholics today) believed, there is much more to the real than meets the eye.

Seems to me that this is just one more example of bad philosophy driving bad theology driving bad practice.