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Seeing the World with the Eyes of God: The Vision Implied by the Medieval Icon1
by Clemena Antonova In his book Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages Umberto Eco says that “they [the Medievals] saw the world with the eyes of God.”2 I would like to suggest one way in which this statement is true: iconic art contains “supplementary planes” which, by describing multiple surfaces of an object simultaneously, allow the viewer to imitate divine vision. The principle of the pictorial construction of the icon proposed by Pavel Florensky (1885–1937) can be connected to the concept of simultaneity, which evolves from the theological doctrine of timeless eternity. In other words, an analogy can be drawn between the spatial construction of iconic images and the manner in which a timelessly eternal, simultaneously existing God would “see” the world and objects in it. In the context of this interpretation I prefer to use the term “simultaneous planes” henceforth in place of Florensky’s “supplementary planes.” Florensky’s concept illuminates an artistic phenomenon and may be based on knowledge of the “multiple planes” of Cubist art.3 This theory also reflects Florensky’s theological training; as a priest and religious philosopher,4 he could very well be identifying himself with a line of theological thought concerned with the problem of divine eternity and its implications. The relationship between theology and iconography that is examined herein has been discussed by both medieval authors and contemporary scholars. One of the most well-known debates is the Iconoclast Controversy in Byzantium (726–787 and 814–843 A.D.), which was predicated on the belief in the theological significance of the sacred image.5 The idea that there is a deep connection between theological notions and images has prompted many modern scholars to consider concepts such as “theology through the arts” and “theology through colour.”6 These ideas seem to imply that theological notions can be suggested through artistic means. Yet to my knowledge, no one has discussed the way in which the construction of pictorial space in the icon can actually implicate—though not directly impart—theological beliefs. This article will attempt to make a first step in this direction by reconstructing and developing some of the implications of Florensky’s notion of “simultaneous planes,” which the author himself left in a fragmentary form.

Florensky’s Simultaneous Planes
Florensky draws attention to the “simultaneous planes” of ancient Russian images in section 1 of his essay on “Reverse Perspective.”7 He initially implies that the principle of the simultaneous representation of different planes of the same image in the picture, regardless of whether the corresponding planes in the represented objects could be seen from a single viewpoint or not, is the fundamental feature of the organization of iconic space. Later on,8 Florensky reverts to the traditional view, still widely regarded, that holds that iconic space reverses or inverses the laws of linear perspective (hence the term “reverse”/“inverse perspective”).9 This view, however, www.hortulus.net 22

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seems unsatisfactory because it implies that medieval iconographers had concerns which in fact came into existence only during the Renaissance.10 Florensky’s initial definition of “simultaneous planes,” therefore, is appealing because it draws attention away from claims of optical illusionism and towards wider conceptual frameworks which were relevant at the time.

Images
According to Florensky, “the icon often shows parts and surfaces which cannot be seen simultaneously.”11 This phenomenon is most noticeable in treatments of architecture. The lateral sides of buildings in Byzantine and ancient Russian art are frequently represented frontally. Thus, in figure 1, there are two staircases leading to two entrances of the building. We have to read the image carefully to realize that the staircases are on opposite sides of the building. The banisters on the right-hand side are actually placed at an oblique angle, but the entrance itself gives the false impression of a frontal view. The same principle holds true of the depictions of other objects. For example, a typical representation of the Bible would show three or four sides of the book on the same picture plane. Of greater interest, perhaps, is the treatment of more complicated forms, such as the human face. The inclusion of profile views alongside frontal ones on the same picture plane produces a typical facial type common to holy figures. The almost triangular-shaped face of Christ or the saints could be derived from adding up the planes Fig. 1. The House of Egron, King of Moab. in the upper part of the face, where Twelfth century.Vatican Octateuch, Biblioteca Apostolica 12 the frontal plane features aspects of Vaticana, MS Vat.gr.746. profile views. The forehead therefore becomes disproportionately wide. As Florensky points out, the treatment of the face in which the forehead is seen alongside the temple and ears causes the planes of the face to appear “as if [they are] spread out on the surface of the icon”13 (fig. 2). Not only are “additional surfaces” of the object represented—i.e., ones that should not be there according to the laws of normal vision at a single moment in time—but they are frequently, as Florensky notices, www.hortulus.net 23

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emphasized by means of colour. These “additional” / “supplementary” / “simultaneous” surfaces are often painted in strikingly bright colours that capture the attention.14 Florensky points out another curious aspect of these iconic images: the tendency of parallel lines “in reverse perspective” to diverge.15 This technique is important because it allows objects and/or their parts to grow larger the further away they are from the viewer. Of course, this is the opposite effect of that which occurs in linear perspective and natural vision. Once an iconic image is seen in this light—as an amalgamation of several aspects of an image on the same picture plane—it is possible to question how the reorganization of space affects time inside the composition. That there is a temporal dimension becomes clear when we Fig. 2. St. Nicolas (Nikola Ugodnik). consider that “reverse perspective” is Fragment from a fresco antinaturalistic because objects do not by Dionisii. Ferapontov Monastery, appear like that to human vision at a single 1500 - 1502. moment in time. It is impossible to see different planes of an object simultaneously; each plane must be experienced separately and consecutively. In other words, this spatial construction depends on a mobile vision that takes place in time. The image seems to convey simultaneity because it implies a vision to which all aspects of objects can appear at the same time, or all at once. This vision would be comparable, in principle, to that of a timelessly eternal God to whom all moments in time exist simultaneously and who, therefore, should be able to “see” all points in space simultaneously as well.

In or Outside of Time? The Doctrine of a Timeless and Simultaneously Existing God
Florensky’s simultaneous planes thus pose the problem of determining what, exactly, is divine vision. It is a question intimately connected to that of divine nature, which is itself no small

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subject. The problem I propose to address is a highly controversial matter in theology and the philosophy of religion, namely God’s eternity. How do we understand eternity: as lack of time and thus opposed to time, or as time everlasting and so pertaining to time? The debate on this issue has been polarized around two major camps: the “timeless” one, which holds that God exists completely outside time, and the “everlasting” one, according to which divine eternity can be explained in temporal terms.16 The former position can be regarded as traditional in that it held sway in western theology until approximately the thirteenth century. It was first questioned in the West by Duns Scotus (ca. 1265–1308)17 and has attracted opponents throughout the centuries.18 Conversely, eastern orthodoxy seems to have upheld the traditional view. In spite of its initial popularity, there is a serious problem posed by the “timeless” view. A seemingly insurmountable difficulty arises when we set out to describe phenomena that exist beyond the human realm, because language is devised to conceptualize the phenomena of our world. In particular, how can we speak of or understand timelessness when language is filled with terms loaded with temporal meaning? One way of dealing with this problem is to try to infuse words that connote time with additional nontemporal meanings. For example, in the Timaeus, Plato describes the soul as “prior” and “older” than the body not in terms of precedence in time but in terms of excellence. Aristotle uses a similar procedure with respect to “prior” and “posterior” in several of his works.19 It remains arguable to what extent this approach works satisfactorily in specific cases. The problems of terminology and conceptualization become especially relevant with regard to the notion of simultaneity, as all of the major proponents of the “everlasting” view claim. Philosophy and theology have tended to define timelessness in terms of simultaneity, which means that a being outside time experiences the past, the present, and the future simultaneously. Parmenides (ca. 510–450 B.C.), who has been attributed with the discovery of the notion of eternity, proposed this idea himself.20 His poem The Way of Truth no longer exists in the original, but a version can be re-created by assembling quotations found in other authors. Richard Sorabji offers the following translation: “Nor was it ever, nor will it be, it now is all together, one, continuous.”21 Plato (ca. 427–348 B.C.) may or may not have been influenced by Parmenides, but he describes eternity in somewhat similar terms: “These all [months, days, and years; past or future existence] are parts of time, and was or will be are forms of time that have come to be. Such notions we unthinkingly but incorrectly apply to everlasting being. For we say that it was and is and will be, but according to the true account only is is appropriately said of it.”22 In other words, what we call “simultaneity” has been described as “all together” in an eternal present, without past or future. Yet Parmenides’ and Plato’s philosophies have given rise to alternative views which differ from a “timeless” interpretation. Parmenides’ poem has frequently been referred to in support of the “everlasting” view.23 Plato’s well-known phrase that time is “the moving image of eternity”24 can also be understood to imply duration and everlastingness in time, which upholds the www.hortulus.net 25

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“everlasting” view. The problem, ultimately, is a result of the difficulty of escaping from the temporal connotations of “simultaneity.” After all, “all together” is an “all together” in time as well. Plotinus (ca. 205–270 A.D.) was well aware of this problem and seems to have made a special effort to insist on the importance of avoiding the idea of temporality in the understanding of timelessness. According to Plotinus, the essence of time is not motion, as Aristotle taught. Its essential characteristic is duration: “Would it, then, be sound to define Time as the Life of the Soul in movement as it passes from one stage of act or experience to another? Yes; . . .”25 Eternity, on the other hand, is totally devoid of duration; it “does not depend upon any quantity (such as installments of time) but subsists ‘before’26 quantity” (3.7.6) In short, time and eternity are opposed: the former is extended (it has a beginning, a middle and an end) while the latter cannot be extended (3.7.2). Time belongs to the realm of becoming, and eternity belongs to the realm of being. Therefore, Plotinus says, “we must not muddle together Being and Non-Being, time and eternity, not even everlasting time with the eternal” (1.5.7 lines 20–31). As eternity lacks any kind of duration, it can be defined as “a Life changelessly motionless and ever holding the Universal content in actual presence; not this now and now that other, but always all; . . . all remains identical within itself, knowing nothing of change, for ever in a Now . . .” (3.7.3). And further, again following from the lack of temporal duration, “there is no first or last in this Principle [eternity], if existence is its most authentic possession and its very self.” “Existence” in the passage is explained as being used “in the sense that its existence is Essence or Life” (3.7.6 lines 23–36). As Sorabji notices, “always” receives a similarly non-temporal connotation.27 It is Plotinus’s concept of an eternal “now” coexistent with all earthly “nows” that forms the core of the traditional notion of eternity that, via Augustine (354–430 A.D.) and Boethius (ca. 480– 525 A.D.), left its stamp on the entire course of Christian thought. St. Augustine follows Plotinus faithfully,28 and Boethius’ classical definition of eternity owes him a debt as well. In The Consolation of Philosophy 5.6. Boethius defines eternity as that which includes and possesses the whole fullness of illimitable life at once and is such that nothing future is absent from it and nothing past has flowed away . . . and of this it is necessary both that being in full possession of itself it be always present to itself and that it have the infinity of mobile time present to it.29 According to Alan Padgett, with Boethius “we find a clear definition, an explicit distinction of terms, and the use of doctrine to solve a perplexing theological problem.”30 This, however, hardly seems to be the case, as the meaning of the passage has been the subject of many heated debates in contemporary scholarship.31 The problem has largely focused on the interpretation of “all at once” or, in other words, on the interpretation of simultaneity. Boethius’ influence is evident in almost every major medieval writer who tackles the problem of time and eternity, but like Parmenides and Plato, his teachings are interpreted in various ways. Later medieval authors seem to have understood Boethius largely in terms of timelessness. In the Proslogion, Anselm (1033–1109) states that:

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Or is it true that nothing of your eternity passes away, so that it is not now; and that nothing of it is destined to be, as if it were not yet? You were not, then, yesterday, nor will you be tomorrow; but yesterday and today and tomorrow you are; or, rather, neither yesterday nor today nor tomorrow you are; but simply, you are, outside all time. For yesterday and today and tomorrow have no existence, except in time;32 Anselm’s belief that God’s eternity is “timeless” is based on God’s greatness—“For nothing contains you, but you contain all”33 —and simplicity, for he is indivisible. Almost one hundred fifty years after Anselm’s death, Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225–1274) explicitly states in the Summa theologica his indebtedness to Boethius’ definition.34 Aquinas’ argument asserts that God is simple,35 consequently he is changeless, from which it could be concluded that he is timeless, since time is the measure of change. The idea that God is timeless means that he coexists with all the modes of time—past, present, and future. The argument over the temporal condition of God seems to have solidified over time. While Parmenides and Plato can be and have been interpreted to mean both “everlastingness” and “timelessness,” later authors like Anselm and Aquinas give less ground for such oscillation. Although conceptual difficulties persist, it is much clearer that Anselm and Aquinas mean “eternity” in a “timeless” sense.36

Divine Vision: Transcendence of Time and Space
How would a timelessly eternal and simultaneously existing God “see” the world? Although medieval theology does not dwell specifically on this problem, it touches upon it within the larger context of discussions of divine nature. Thus, to illustrate his position on divine timelessness St. John of Damascus (ca. 675–ca. 749 A.D.) says: “[He sees distinctly] with His divine, all-seeing, and immaterial eye all things at once, both present and past and future, before they come to pass.”37 Several important ideas are conveyed by St. John’s statement. First, divine vision is timeless, and by implication simultaneous. It perceives “all things at once,” without distinction between past, present, and future. This is exactly how visual perception that takes place out of time should be expected to function, if one follows the doctrine of divine timelessness. Secondly, it appears that divine vision is not vision at all in the strict sense of the word. Just as with “simultaneity” and related notions, the words we use for convenience’s sake are taken out of their usual context, so their meaning becomes fundamentally different. John of Damascus takes care to distinguish “God’s eye” from the common connotation of “eye” and thus of “vision.” The divine “eye” is “all-seeing” but also “immaterial” and therefore fundamentally unlike a human eye. If divine vision is so different from human vision, how can we find common ground between them? One possible answer to this question is provided by iconic art, understood in the sense proposed here. The principle of “simultaneous planes” of the icon can be interpreted as a tool that offers the viewer the possibility to experience, to some degree at least, “divine vision.” This

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experience, in a sense, lifts the viewer out of time and space, since a divine vision beyond time is beyond space as well. The linking of time and space may be a modern concept, but it does not preclude that the theological doctrine of timelessness implies existence out of space as one of the characteristics of God. The primary feature of existence outside of space, however, is the lack of a point of view. A human viewer, grounded in space and time, would be required to move in order to see all the various aspects of an object (or, alternately, movement of part of the object would be required). To a timeless God who holds no particular point of view, all aspects of objects would appear “all together,” “all at once,” i.e. simultaneously. It is in this sense that I propose that divine vision perceives objects very much according to the principle of iconic simultaneous planes.

Conclusion
I have brought attention herein to the structural analogy that exists between the doctrine of divine timelessness and the principle of the simultaneous representation of different planes of objects in iconic art. I am not claiming that the theological doctrine of timeless eternity directly informed iconographic artistic practice. It is unlikely that either icon painters or their audiences were versed in a highly complicated theological concept that, as we can see, still baffles specialists. Rather, my thesis is that the phenomenon of the simultaneous planes of the icon provides a visual structural analogue to the concept of timeless eternity and simultaneity. Although there is no question of direct influence, Martin Kemp’s concept of “structural intuition” can be applied to show how these two principles complement each other. Kemp’s “structural intuition” defines structures that “are both those of intuitive processes themselves and those of external features whose structures are being intuited.”38 The principle of iconic simultaneous planes can suggest ways of handling space and time which could prove an invaluable alternative to the methods proposed by a doctrine which, as I discussed, theology and philosophy have failed to explain satisfactorily. Ultimately, this paper has tried to shed light on the common claim that the icon is, in some manner, a “transcendental” form of art. According to the interpretation proposed here, this is so, but not in the typical sense. Sacred images are not “transcendental” in the sense of “unrealistic.” They are “transcendental” in the sense that they presuppose a divine vision that is timeless and simultaneous and therefore transcends human vision, which is of course grounded in time and space. According to this view, the icon “lifts” the viewer out of his human time and into a timeless reality. In this way the viewer is able to imitate, to some degree at least, divine vision and see the world with the “eyes” of God. Clemena Antonova is a D. Phil. student in the History of Art at Oxford University. She is working on aspects of Byzantine and post-Byzantine art and is especially interested in the relationship between art and theology as well as in questions of aesthetics and the philosophy of art.

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Notes
1. I thank Prof. R. Swinburne (Oxford University) for discussing the theological implications of the following text with me. I am also grateful to Prof. S. Pattison (Cardiff University) for his useful suggestions and comments. 2. Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, trans. Hugh Bredin (New Haven, Conn. and London: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 118; originally published as “Sviluppo dell’estetica medievale,” in Momenti e problemi di storia dell’estetica (Milan: Marzorati, 1959). 3. Arthur Miller, Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty That Causes Havoc (New York: Basic, 2001), p. 106. Florensky’s paper was prepared in 1919. Picasso had already produced Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). 4. While still relatively unknown in the West, in the Russian-speaking world Florensky is largely seen as “the greatest religious thinker and seer” of the first half of the twentieth century. See Viktor Bychkov, The Aesthetic Face of Being: Art in the Theology of Pavel Florensky (Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), p. 93. 5. The critical literature on the Iconoclast Controversy is voluminous. There is a useful outline in Jas Elsner, “Image and Iconoclasm in Byzantium,” Art History 11, no. 4 (1988), 477–81. For an important recent study see Charles Barber, Figure and Likeness: On the Limits of Representation in Byzantine Iconoclasm (Princeton, N.J. and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002). 6. Among the important works in this field are Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1980); Robin Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art (London: Routledge, 2000); and Barber, Figure and Likeness. 7. This essay was read in 1921 and first published in 1967. 8. Particularly in sections 13–14. 9. Florensky borrowed the term from Oscar Wulff; see Oscar Wulff, “Die umgekehrten Perspektive und die Niedersicht,” in Kunstwissenschaftliche Beiträge A. Schmarsow demodmet (Leipzig, 1907). 10. The discovery of linear, Renaissance perspective has been attributed to Filippo Brunelleschi. Martin Kemp fixes the time of Brunelesschi’s construction somewhere before 1413. See Martin Kemp, The Science of Art (New Haven, Conn. and London: Yale University Press, 1990). The problems posed by the term and concept of “reverse perspective” are addressed in Martin Kemp and Clemena Antonova, “Reverse Perspective: Historical Fallacies and an Alternative View,” in The Visual Mind II, ed. Michele Emmer (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, forthcoming), pp. 499–539. 11. Pavel Florensky, “Reverse Perspective” in Beyond Vision: Essays on the Perception of Art, ed. N. Misler, trans. Wendy Salmond (London: Reaktion, 2002), p. 201. 12. This figure is from Lev Zhegin, Iazik zhivopisnogo proizvedenia: uslovnost drevnego iskusstva (The language of the work of art: conventionality of ancient art) (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1970). Zhegin’s book, of which there is still no English translation, provides what is probably the most useful visual analysis of Florensky’s theoretical positions. 13. Florensky, “Reverse Perspective,” p. 201.

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14. Ibid., p. 203. The function of colour is an interesting and lengthy subject that is too large to be treated here. I mention it in this paper because it is important as a means of emphasizing the construction of space. 15. Ibid., pp. 201–2. 16. The most important proponents of the “timeless” view in contemporary scholarship are Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, “Eternity,” Journal of Philosophy 78, no. 8 (1981), 429–58; Paul Helm, Eternal God: God without Time (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988); and Brian Leftow, Time and Eternity (Ithaca, N.Y. and London: Cornell University Press, 1991). Major proponents of the “eternal” view include Nicholas Wolterstorff, “God Everlasting,” in God and the Good: Essays in Honour of Henry Stob, ed. C. Orlebeke and L. Smedes (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1975); Richard Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977); and Stephen Davis, Logic and the Nature of God (London: Macmillan, 1982).

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17. Alan Padgett, God, Eternity and the Nature of Time (Basingstoke, Hampshire, Engl.: Macmillan Academic and Professional, 1991), p. 53. On thirteenth-century notions of eternity, see Richard Dale, “Time and Eternity in the Thirteenth Century,” Journal of the History of Ideas 49, no. 1 (1988), 27–45. Dale does not discuss Duns Scotus, but concentrates on authors mostly from the previous generation who tried to tackle the difficulty of relating the eternal and the temporal. 18. According to Padgett, it was Hegel who “set the stage for the modern discussion of divine eternity”; Padgett, God, Eternity, p. 53. 19. See references to particular works by Aristotle in Richard Sorabji, Time, Creation, and the Continuum: Theories in Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press; London: Duckworth, 1983), p. 114. 20. Ibid., p. 41. 21. Ibid., p. 99. 22. Plato, Timaeus 37E, trans. Benjamin Jowett, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Bollinger Series 71 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 1167. 23. Sorabji, Time, Creation, p. 103. Sorabji outlines eight interpretations of Parmenides, some of which could be easily seen as supporting the “everlasting” view of eternity. 24. Plato, Timeaus 37D, trans. Jowett. 25. Plotinus, Enneads 3.7.11, in The Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna, rev. B. S. Page , 4th rev. ed. (New York: Pantheon; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 234. All subsequent quotations from the Enneads are from this edition and will be cited in the text in parentheses. 26. The quotation marks are mine, as “before” should not be understood in its usual sense. 27. Sorabji, Time, Creation, p. 112. As Sorabji mentions, it is interesting that Origen employs “always” in exactly the same fashion in First Principles 1.3.4. 28. Actually, according to Padgett on the problem of eternity, “there is little [in St. Augustine’s doctrine] which cannot find a parallel in Plotinus”; Padgett, God, Eternity, p. 43. 29. Translation from Stump and Kretzmann, ”Eternity” (see n. 15 above), p. 430. 30. Padgett, God, Eternity, p. 46. 31. See especially the debate between Stump and Kretzmann versus Fitzgerald: Stump and Kretzmann, “Eternity,” pp. 429–58; and Paul Fitzgerald, “Stump and Kretzmann on Time and Eternity,” Journal of Philosophy 82, no. 5 (1985), 260–69. 32. Anselm, Proslogion chap. 19, in St. Anselm: Basic Writings, trans. S. N. Deane, 2nd ed. (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1962), p. 71. [The English in this translation has been modernized—Eds.] 33. Ibid.

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36. Consider, for instance, Anthony Kenny’s inept remark: “But, on St. Thomas’s view, my typing of this paper is simultaneous with the whole of eternity. Again on this view, the great fire of Rome is simultaneous with the whole of eternity. Therefore, while I type these very words, Nero fiddles heartlessly on.” Anthony Kenny, The God of the Philosophers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), pp. 38– 39. 37.John of Damascus, “The Orthodox Faith,” in Writings, trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr., Fathers of the Church 37 (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1958), p. 204. 38. Martin Kemp, Visualizations: The Nature Book of Art and Science (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 1.

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