Tuesday, February 28, 2006


In reading Ross King's Brunelleschi's Dome I came across a section where King discussed the use of 'perspective' in art, which represents distance or gives the impression of three dimensions in a two dimensional medium. Brunelleschi helped rediscover the principles of perspective and the vanishing point, which had been lost to art. However it seems the very issue of using perspective in art was a controversial one:
After the decline of the Roman Empire, however, the technique of perspective drawing was lost or abandoned. Plato had condemned perspective as deceit, and the Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus (A.D. 205-270) praised the flattened art of the ancient Egyptians for showing figures in their "true" proportions. This prejudice against the "dishonesty" of perspective was adopted in Christian art, with the result that naturalistic space was renounced throughout the Middle Ages. Only in the first decades of the fourteenth century did the ancient methods of perspective reappear when Giotto began using chiaroscuro--a treatment of light and shade--to create realistic three-dimensional effects. (p. 34)

Well, I confess this was a new one on me. I had assumed that the flattened art one sees in medieval art was simply a lack of artistic sophistication, not that there isn't a great deal of skill on display. That is readily apparent in illuminated manuscripts like the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels. But it is interesting that at least in part the lack of perspective was a conscious choice, a moral choice from their, er, perspective.

When I read that section to my wife her response to the argument that perspective was dishonest was, "Couldn't the same argument be made the other way?" Good point.


KyProsecutor said...


I also was surprised to read a similar comment in E.H. Gombrich's "The Story of Art" concerning perspective. Gombrich points out that art has not simply "progressed" as advances in car manufacturing might progress but has developed as conscious choices and revelations by artists.
My main point is that ancient art was not "lesser" art than art in later eras but in many aspects may have been greater.

Tracy Prater said...

Fine then...if that's how you see it.