Most of us know about perspective from art classes in school–the common example being one of train tracks leading into the distance, coming to a single point. The eye and brain have learned to see these cues and interpret the lines as depth, as a dimension and indication of space.
The lines and angles serve to enhance this perception, giving a great sense of “realness” and naturalism to a painting or drawing.
Iconographers knew of this idea as well, but deliberately created a visual system which is quite the opposite. We call it “inverse perspective”.
Icons have been called a “window into heaven”. The pictorial part of the wooden panel in the center is the heaven part. The border/frame around it represents the world. Many icons show halos (God’s radiance) or hands/ garments/etc overlapping into the border, as a symbol of the fact that God has entered the world through Jesus, and His presence and grace is active here among us.
But there is more to this concept in the icon than these more obvious, painted symbols. Inverse perspective carries this much further.
The background of the icon is flat. There is no depth of space, and no attempt to suggest it. The figures are more or less equal in size and brilliance of color, and depicted on the same plane.
Buildings are oddly angled, and not the orderly vanishing-point progression we are used to seeing. Like tables, platforms, and chairs, they seem to be tipped forward, as if objects and figures might even slide forward out of the picture plane.
If we were to diagram the icon with lines and vanishing points as in traditional perspective, we would make quite a discovery. Instead of vanishing back into the “distance” of the painting like those proverbial train tracks, the icon moves forward. The lines all converge towards the viewer, converging on the person in prayer before the image–heaven moving towards the worshipper to meet him or her. In the icon, the Divine is made present to us, coming towards us, bringing the kingdom of God close. The point of convergence is you.