Kronos: Metafizyka, Kultura, Religia, January 2009

Paradise in Perspective: Thoughts from Pavel Florensky*
AARON TUGENDHAFT “Un Dieu vengeur a exaucé les voeux de cette multitude.” --- Charles Baudelaire, Salon de 1859

In his recently published tour-de-force The Reformation of the Image,
Joseph Leo Koerner discusses an early panel painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The painting, a crucifixion from 1503 now in Munich (fig. 1), is unlike any Cranach would later paint on the same subject. Cranach presents a radically oblique view of Christ that introjects a viewer into represented space, specifying one’s position “through the contingency of forms beheld as if at this specific place and time.”1 By manipulating point-of-view, the artist makes available the “subjective perception of an eyewitness” to the event depicted.2 The painting suggests a contingency involved in viewing Christ, as if one were to happen upon the scene. Under the influence of Luther’s teaching, Cranach would later eschew using such an oblique point-of-view in his Figure 1. Lucas Cranach the Elder, Crucifixion, 1503, depictions of the crucifixion, oil on panel. Alte Pinakothek, Munich. replacing it with head-on depictions of Christ on the cross, as in the predella of his Wittenberg Altarpiece from 1547. The individual subjectivity facilitated by the 1503 Crucifixion is exchanged
This essay benefited greatly from long discussions with Josh Ellenbogen and Daniel Doneson. Their thoughts have influenced my own thinking in countless ways; all errors remain my own.


Religia. By paying attention to the importance inherent in such details. This answer leads him to embrace reverse perspective as a formal technique. respectively. when organized.4 2 . in particular his 1920 lecture “Reverse Perspective. I hope to make apparent a range of subtleties involved in the relationship between art and theology—ones often neglected in discussions that employ such all-or-nothing terms as “iconoclasm” and “iconophilia.Kronos: Metafizyka. Florensky sees the latter as a means of escape from the quotidian in a way analogous to how holidays disrupt everyday time. As such. It takes as its subject the work of Russian priest. The piece was originally written as a lecture Florensky intended to give to the Commission for the Preservation of Monuments and Antiquities of the Lavra of the Trinity and St Sergius. perspective— for their theological implications. according to the rules of linear perspective versus those of reverse perspective? As will be shown in part one of this essay. to put things somewhat differently. the theological meaning of a work. 1. while rejecting linear perspective. This paper will explore an analogous situation.” With Florensky. which bring Florensky into conversation with Erwin Panofsky and Walter Benjamin. Kultura. indeed that Christ and his message are the same for all believers. by elucidating formal artistic principles in a theological framework. philosopher and all-around polymath Pavel Florensky.”3 Though the scene of Christ crucified remains the same throughout. My treatment of Florensky’s essay is intended as a case study of how the formal details of artistic practice can be implicated in larger theological arguments and ambitions. it constitutes part of Florensky’s effort following the revolution to safeguard the spiritual values and material treasures of the Orthodox faith. the important Russian monastery where Florensky himself had lived from 1908 to 1919. Florensky’s essay “Reverse Perspective” consists of two main sections: the first is a series of historical observations concerning the rise of European one-point perspective. Koerner shows how—at least to Luther and Cranach—the manipulation of a formal quality like point-of-view can radically transform the viewing experience and. I want to ask: what might be the theological significance of the organization of pigment on a flat surface. The variability of how formal details can be linked to theological ideas will become apparent in parts two and three of this essay. therefore. for example. Or. the second a theoretical account of the relationship between perspective and psycho-physiological experience. with major sections on the mathematics of two-dimensional representation.” Florensky’s arguments constitute a way of interpreting formal practices in art—in this case. Florensky offers insights into how painting can structure human experience. January 2009 for a form of depiction that corresponds to “the theological idea that all Christians share an internal image of Christ.

and that “stand in glaring contradiction to the rules of linear perspective. it is concerned more with revelation than representation. without being reality. January 2009 Reminiscent of Baudelaire’s Jeremiad against the masses’ embrace of photography over half a century earlier.”10 An exact replica of an apple would give us nothing that we did not already possess in the apple itself. Different methods of representation differ from each other. of its material. are concerned with something different than depicting the world as it appears.”9 Likewise. communicate all points from the former onto the latter—but impossible to do so while maintaining the formal organization of the thing represented. only a match for. since all are equally non-naturalistic. but to give the most profound penetration of its architectonics. mathematically speaking. Florensky argues not only against the possibility of naturalistic depictions of the world. making use of Georg Cantor’s method of arithmetical/analytical correspondence. as symbols. but on the symbolic plane. but because.e. “Consequently. Rather. if it were even possible. on its accuracy to psycho-physiological experience. but for all its tricks it never attains reality and at best. sensory reality. “we immediately embark on the path of symbolism. not as the object differs from its representation. it is necessary to recognize that all works of art are by nature symbolic.”5 Florensky argues that both linear perspective and reverse perspective.”6 Recognizing this. Religia. the final verdict is proclaimed for painting…to the degree that it claims to provide a likeness of reality: naturalism is once and for all an impossibility. Kultura. He states that “the task of painting is not to duplicate reality.” he writes: “‘Just as it is in reality’—this usual praise for a naturalistic work of art surely bears witness to the fact that ‘like in reality’ is something that. “Works of art differ from each other not because some are symbolic and others are ostensibly naturalistic.”7 Because naturalism is an impossibility. he also attacks the value of any such attempt. of various world perceptions. Florensky comes to defend the “childish babbling” of Russian icon painting against the “naturalism” of sophisticates. it would become unnecessary as art. as modes of depiction. it is not relevant to judge a painting based on its being a “likeness”. are symbolic—neither is an accurate representation of psychophysical reality..Kronos: Metafizyka. The symbol allows us to see something that is not otherwise available to our vision in the world. Paintings.”8 Because all depictions are symbolic. they are symbols of various aspects of an object. in his 1923 essay “On Realism. if it did attain it. Such an accurate representation is in fact mathematically impossible. various levels of synthesis. it is possible to transmit the content of three-dimensional space onto a flat surface—i. Florensky contends. of its meaning. He shows that. our interest in art should reside in the fact that “works of art can unite us with 3 . wants to stand beside the phenomena of reality…Illusionistic art wants to be a match for. especially in the depiction of objects with flat sides and rectilinear edges” that one finds in Russian icon paintings of the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries. Florensky uses the term “reverse perspective” to characterize the “unexpected perspectival relationships.

Palazzo Pitti. the closer it is. Michelangelo. like the icon and church ritual as a whole. on the contrary. the bigger it is. In his fresco of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel (fig. We are not drawn into this space.”11 Art. forcing us to reckon with it.” this painting. is supposed to make available “that which is sensuously unavailable. 2). 3). the smaller. Florensky glosses: “This is characteristic of that other. The painting depicts a group of peasants returning from the fields.Kronos: Metafizyka. Florensky declares. now in the Galleria Palatina. “transcendental to us. What makes the work interesting for our purposes is that it combines the use of both linear perspective and reverse perspective. in Florence (fig. It is not a facile representFigure 2. Florensky discusses a landscape painting by Rubens.”12 Florensky champions reverse-perspectival representation as the mode of painting that allows for the manifestation of the otherwise unseen. but rather presents an unusual configuration of space immediately in our world. “we begin to experience its complete incommensurability with the space of the fresco. Kultura.”15 Making a similar point. the further away they are from the viewer—contrary to the rules of linear perspective. it repels us.e. This is reverse 13 In viewing perspective. The magnitude of his figures increases as they appear further up the fresco. Rome. It is a world.”14 Michelangelo’s fresco brings us face-to-face with an organization of space that shocks and repels. January 2009 realities that are inaccessible to our senses. as a mercury sea would repel our bodies. spiritual space: the further away something is.. Michelangelo’s use of reverse perspective disrupts a viewer’s everyday experience of spatial organization. Florensky tells us. i. Vatican. The “central section is approximately 4 . Sistine Chapel. 1536-41. Last Judgment. ation of another world. Religia. fresco. who think according to Kant and Euclid.

Returning from the Fields. he explains elsewhere. create a distinct vision of space that reveals complexities unobtainable to normal human vision. 1632-4. As a result. Kultura.” The essay. January 2009 perspectival and its space draws one in. one felt some sort of festiveness. The fenced off space of the play area produces an isolating frame. This space is…saturated with joy and important meaning. Florensky’s championing of reverse-perspectival painting as revelatory is based on the argument that naturalistic. while the sides are in reverse perspective. perspectival painting presents us with nothing that we do not already find in the world. Landscape. such as happens on the eve of extraordinary days in families with a settled rhythm of domestic habits. and he compares his experience that day to the experience of Sabbath time.Kronos: Metafizyka. Such time. Galleria Palatina. and in the clusters of all age groups. from 1925.”18 The core of his interpretation rests in this idea of the puppet theater as a break from the everyday aspects of life. their spaces pushing away the perceiving eye. Palazzo Pitti. expectancy. the puppet theater comes into being as a result of its division from the everyday world. Florence. Peter Paul Rubens. virtually cut off…from the general life of [Florensky’s hometown of] Sergiev Posad. and the immaculate edge can reveal the distinctive space of artistic creativity. is an account of a performance that took place in an abandoned garden “situated on a slope and secluded. from the babes in arms to old folk.”16 Rubens is able to Figure 3. oil on canvas. Religia. “On the Efimovs’ Puppet Theater. both 5 . two powerful visual vortices are created that marvelously fill the prosaic subject.”20 This artistic realm—as theater.”19 Like the Sabbath. though it passes in time. “Only the frame.”17 Florensky describes how “children and adults thronged the slope. the border. This distinction between quotidian life and the role of art is the theme of another of Florensky’s essays. is not normal time. “is holy because it is separated from the sequence of the seven days of the week…[The Sabbath]. A work of such prosaic subject matter can produce an effect of shock and unease by means of the formal manipulation of perspective. impenetrably divided from the other six days.

homogenous space. is transformed into art.” Such space is marked by its opposition to the homogeneity of (what Florensky calls) Kantian-Euclidean space. homogenous space of such 6 . let us call the space that reverse-perspective makes visible (according to Florensky) “holiday space. Religia.”24 So for Panofsky.”22 The naturalistic sluggishness of life is transformed into art. both make visible something other than what is seen in psychophysiological experience.” Mathematical vision is concerned with abstraction and with infinite.Kronos: Metafizyka. But if we take Florensky’s argument that all painting is symbolic seriously. Erwin Panofsky makes a similar claim in his essay Perspective as Symbolic Form. Panofsky calls the space that perspectival representation makes visible “mathematical space. Florensky tells us. It is a holiday of the visual. Florensky admits. are symbolic. Kultura. Whereas Florensky’s discussion of the puppet theater’s achievement of holiday focuses on the interaction between the puppets and elements outside the puppet booth. is “a qualitatively new and blessed time” that “breaks the fetters of the countless petty cares of everyday and opens the way for the unrestricted lines by which life. just as for Florensky. Panofsky admits that “exact perspectival construction is a systematic abstraction from the structure of this psychophysiological space” and hence is not a duplication of natural vision. in “Reverse Perspective” his main concern is with what occurs on the picture plane. which have no place in the everyday world. the perspectival depiction is not an exact replica of the world.” For the sake of parallelism. even in its naturalistic sluggishness. A holiday. Both Panofsky and Florensky agree that perspectival representation is linked to an assertion of the infinite. If this is so.” uniting the choir of spectators and nurturing “profound emotions. the puppet theater “bring[s] to life a new reality.”21 As such a holiday. January 2009 temporal and spatial—declares itself as holiday (prazdnik) in its separation from the quotidian world. By analogy with his statements in the puppet theater essay. In a sense. and hence could also be able to operate as a locus for revelation. 23 In fact. but indeed its intended purpose. we must recognize that perspectival painting is also presenting us with something other than what we see in the world. Florensky champions reverse perspective because it provides a break from the everyday experience of the world. it remains to ask what distinguishes the vision gained from “mathematical space” from that gained from “holiday space. “it is not only the effect of perspectival construction. Both these spaces. 2. to realize in the representation of space precisely that homogeneity and boundlessness foreign to the direct experience of that space. written just five years after Florensky’s text. perspective transforms psychophysiological space into mathematical space.

Where they differ is in what they conclude from this fact. manifesting to vision something otherwise unseen—we are faced with a choice “between mediaeval night or the enlightenment day of culture.”27 Florensky maintains that “in the final analysis there are only two experiences of the world— a human experience in the large sense and a scientific.Kronos: Metafizyka. he does not believe (as 7 . of course. hampered by a host of supplementary conditions that define its potential for application and the limits to which it can be applied. extremely limited. Panofsky concludes. in its way. who. Kultura. in an entirely modern sense. “detheologized space”—which is. ‘infinite’ experience of the world…The result was the transformation of psychophysiological space into mathematical space. although in his proud seclusion from the world he imagines himself to be the last instance. Yet on the basis of his own furtive experience he constructs all of reality. which was for Aristotle completely inconceivable and for high Scholasticism only in the shape of divine omnipotence…has now become natura naturata…[S]pace…now becomes a “continuous quantity. existing by nature before all bodies and beyond all bodies. who cannot even synthesize his own fragmentary impressions. says Panofsky.”25 Such a view of space. indifferently receiving everything.”29 Florensky further complains about the perspectival artist: He is an observer who brings nothing of his own to the world. however.”31 Florensky agrees with Panofsky as to perspective’s claims. consisting of three physical dimensions. all of it. since he does not enter into a living interaction with the world…is not aware of his own reality either. but as such “is a method that is extremely narrow. an objectification of the subjective. on the pretext of objectivity. squeezing it into what he has observed of reality’s own differential. as a style that corresponds to this scientific experience of the world. in other words.. i.”28 Perspective. is valid for such experience. January 2009 mathematical vision. Panofsky writes: perspectival achievement is nothing other than a concrete expression of a contemporary advance in epistemology or natural science…Actual infinity. Religia. In the presence of these two symbolic options—each of which. ‘Kantian’ experience. who writes that with the development of perspective “the subjective visual impression was indeed so rationalized that this very impression could itself become the foundation for a solidly grounded and yet. is the view “rationalized by Cartesianism and formalized by Kantianism.e. Florensky’s problem with it.”26 It is also.30 We can compare this position to that of Panofsky.

conversely. He proposes that perspective “opens art to the realm of the psychological. the multiple points of view are contained within the painting. with its own particular perspectival center. which lives in us. Religia. let us return for a moment to the puppet theater essay. The importance Florensky places on the effacement of the distinction between subject and object becomes apparent there in his discussion of childhood.”33 In such paintings. and sometimes also with its own particular horizon.Kronos: Metafizyka. in the highest sense. In being united by the puppet. our childhood—“this primordial proximity to all existence”— resurfaces through our engagement with the work of art. by contrast. “the composition is constructed as if the eye were looking at different parts of it. 3.”38 Forgotten as a result of our everyday lives. the differences in their theologies. counteracts the tendency to solipsism through the use of polycentrism. the most profound emotions arise for the spectators.”36 Panofsky treats the rise of linear perspective as intertwined with a turn to religious humanism. on the other hand. He concludes: “Perspective. but is tightly screened off from us. Reverse-perspective. Panofsky admits that “perspective seals off religious art from the realm of the magical.”34 Reality is revealed as shared and religious experience is rendered objective.”37 The claims of both Florensky and Panofsky as to the nature of perspective are amazingly close. The deepest and most cherished is “childhood. it expands human consciousness into a vessel for the divine. the shared experience of the painting is contained within the painting itself.39 Florensky tells us that 8 . With Florensky’s notion of “shared reality” in mind. where the work of art itself performs the miracle. the painting makes available to human vision an ‘objectivity’ not restricted to individualistic subjectivity. the other locating the divine in the consciousness of the individual human subject. Kultura. while perspective claims to make objectivity available. In this way. As a result. lead them to very different conclusions—the one maintaining a traditional commitment to religious objectivity. in transforming the ousia (reality) into the phainomenon (appearance).”35 However. for Panofsky. At the end of Perspective as Symbolic Form. seems to reduce the divine to a mere subject matter for human consciousness. this does not entail the absolute end to religious experience through art. January 2009 Panofsky seems to) that perspective can actually achieve the objectivity it declares. but for that very reason. it in actuality reduces the world to the subjectivity of separate individual beholders. while changing its position.”32 Different parts of the painting are drawn each “from its own particular point of view. Such paintings demonstrate a liberation from perspective “for the sake of religious objectivity and suprapersonal metaphysics. on the other hand. For Florensky. where the miraculous finds its last refuge in the soul of the human being represented in the work of art.

”40 The puppet theater allows us to regress to our childhood. I want to consider how Benjamin’s approach raises questions for Florensky’s thinking. because this ‘paradise’ has become hidden from the eye.”42 Because this is how all children behave. i. Benjamin concludes his reflections with the comment: “Children are not ashamed. Such a life is “paradisiacal because there is no thought of the dissolution of boundaries—from excitement—in the object of experience. Instead of contemplating. since they do not reflect but only see.e. and harmony. Kultura. For Florensky. for Florensky.”47 To reflect is to contemplate— the subject matter of which is either theological or metaphysical. the eternal. is connected to a reduction of outer stimulus. Benjamin’s thinking is more radical than Florensky’s. innocence. In the face of a reverse-perspectival painting. Pavel Florensky and Walter Benjamin tackle many of the same themes. In his description of the Efimov theater. ideas. separated from the world. “it continues to live in us and it declares itself unexpectedly at certain times. now [in our everyday adult lives] we are divided from one another. childhood experience is free of the distinction between subject and object. January 2009 though forgotten. that is to say. In a fragment from around 1914. reverse perspective is “a representational method that derives from a [child’s] characteristic perceptual synthesis of the world. objects are not reduced to things but are constituted by an order consisting of an infinite range of nuances. Writing around the same time but to my knowledge in ignorance of each other.44 A fraction of space.”43 Children’s pictures bare witness to a perception of the world that is not suffocated by the subject-object distinction that they come to learn later. regarding it as a deceptive cloak for individual objects existing in time and space. the rainbow refers to a life in art. Instead the world is full of color in a state of identity.” Benjamin describes color as a transitive and shifting medium of intuition. Religia. The childhood experience. 9 . “A Child’s View of Color.. How might this discussion of childhood help us understand the possibilities inherent in the arrangement of space in painting? Florensky writes in “Reverse Perspective” that “it is only when they lose their spontaneous relationship to the world that children lose reverse perspective and submit to the schema [of perspectival representation] with which they have been indoctrinated. He claims that adults “abstract from color.”45 For the child.”46 For Benjamin.Kronos: Metafizyka. such works provide a sort of childhood recovered at will. Benjamin relates art and childhood. Where color provides the contours [as with children]. divided off and qualitatively different. however. Like Florensky. By way of conclusion. adults can return to their own childhoods. puts adults in contact with paradise. Such play is a figure for immanent life. in that he understands this distinction not as the imposition of enlightenment day on mediaeval night but as symptomatic of a more fundamental metaphysical thinking. the children play. in which subject and object are obscured. forms or God. like for Florensky.”41 The puppet theater brings our childhood—with all that this implies for the experience of a shared reality—back before our eye. its re-creation in adult life requires withdrawal into a state of holiday. this withdrawal is a return to ‘paradise’: “Once united in this ‘paradise’.

Kunstwissenschaftliche Beiräge. 1-40. 181. Perspective as Symbolic Form. ed.48 In response to Florensky’s call for an art that opens up a realm qualitatively different from the everyday. It is worth noting that Erwin Panofsky. 114. In an immanent frame. 246. Benjamin’s use of the trope suggests instead that it might in fact constitute absolute engagement with the world. 1997]. 2002). 4 Nicoletta Misler. it is the enemy. Benjamin might retort that it is precisely the homogeneity of mathematical space as rendered in perspectival painting that can promote “the coming of the Messianic Kingdom. 235. p.”49 1 Joseph Leo Koerner. Wood [New York: Zone Books. 254. holidays would mark a qualitative difference in time. 3 Reformation of the Image. in his Perspective as Symbolic Form. 10 . Misler (London: Reaktion Books. One wonders if the same holds true for space.” in Heinrich Weizsäcker.) 6 Beyond Vision. p. Each day. 30. N. Florensky likely borrowed the term “reverse” (obratnaia) from Oskar Wullf’s “Die umgekehrte und die Niedersicht. n. January 2009 Florensky describes childhood experience as an escape from the world. p. The regularity of quantitatively distinguished time is made heterogeneous in such traditional calendars that leave open spaces for holidays. Immanence renders such a distinction impossible—there is no outside according to which one moment can be declared more valuable than another.. Eine raumanschauungsform der altbyzantinischen Kunst und ihre Fortbildung in der Renaissance. 7 Beyond Vision. 201. pp.” in Pavel Florensky. 1907). Kultura. Similarly. 5 Beyond Vision. p. trans. August Schmarsow gewidmet zum fünfzigsten semester seiner akademischen Lehertätigkeit (Leipzig: Hiersemann. there can be no “other. p. pp.” Benjamin embraces the secular gambit of modernity. in his “Theological-Political Fragment. 258. 237. 10 Beyond Vision. 2 Reformation of the Image. For Florensky. from which an escape—even if only occasional and fleeting—must be maintained. The question Benjamin poses is how we are to understand this homogenous time. Benjamin suggests that it may be the new field of the messianic. though this essay is not cited by him. p. p. p. The Reformation of the Image (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 22-23. 258. Christopher S. Beyond Vision: Essays on the Perception of Art. all time is rendered homogenous. rejects Wulff’s thesis that “reverse perspective” is a true inversion of normal perspective. 8 Beyond Vision. spiritual space”—as Florenksy would have it—that correlates to reverse perspective. 209. Religia. in that the image is referred to the point of view of a beholder standing inside the picture instead of outside it (Erwin Panofsky. As an order that lacks the means of metaphysical distinction. p.Kronos: Metafizyka. Traditionally. “Pavel Florensky: A Biographical Sketch. each moment is the same—disconnected from the rest. 9 Beyond Vision. ed. 2004).

17 Beyond Vision.W. ed. 132. 31 Perspective as Symbolic Form. p. 204. pp. p. 21 Beyond Vision. p. 30-31. 219. p. 36 Perspective as Symbolic Form. 28 Beyond Vision. p. 47 Selected Writings. p. Religia. p. 38 Beyond Vision. p. M. 242. p. vol. Beyond Vision. p. 43 Beyond Vision. 15 Beyond Vision. 3. 16 Beyond Vision. 66. 1996). 132. 33 Beyond Vision. p. 23 Perspective as Symbolic Form. 13 Beyond Vision. 219. 30 Beyond Vision. 219. 32 Beyond Vision. p. 72. p. 25 Perspective as Symbolic Form. D. 141-43. vol. 39 Beyond Vision. Mass. p. 44 The phrase is from Charles Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life. 22 Beyond Vision. p. p. 46 Selected Writings. 27 Beyond Vision. 125. 51. 34 Beyond Vision. 134. vol.Kronos: Metafizyka. 1. 72. 239. 30. 208. 42 Beyond Vision. 51. ed. Pavel Florensky. 45 Walter Benjamin. p. 181. 1. p. 134. 40 Beyond Vision. 50. 204.W. For a more elaborate description of this night/day metaphor. 26 Perspective as Symbolic Form. Iconostasis trans. p. p. Sheehan and O. p. Andrejev (Crestwood. p. 72. 239. 305. 261. pp. p. p. 49 Walter Benjamin. 132. 20 Beyond Vision. NY: SVS Press. 134. p. p. 11 . 18 Beyond Vision. 1. see Florensky’s comments in his essay on Aegean culture. 239. Jennings (Cambridge. p. 242. p. Kultura. 132. 135. I would like to thank Robert Bird for drawing my attention to this passage. 41 Beyond Vision. 2000). Selected Writings.: Harvard University Press. p. 35 Perspective as Symbolic Form. 14 Beyond Vision. “The Philosophy of the Cult” (1918). p.: Harvard University Press. p. 2002). 65-66. 48 Beyond Vision. 29 Beyond Vision. 134. p. p. p. vol. Selected Writings. 66 (my emphasis). pp. 24 Perspective as Symbolic Form. 264. p. 37 Perspective as Symbolic Form. 19 Pavel Florensky. 218. M. Mass. January 2009 11 12 Beyond Vision. Jennings (Cambridge.