December 29, 2015

A Lesson in Point-of-View

Once in a while, I'll try to take on some art topics that are more related to the mechanics and principles of design than the theology of art. (Although today, I'll get a wee bit of both in.) Today's topic is point-of-view: where is the viewer in relation to the subject? Why is it even important?

Detail from The Maestà, Duccio, 1311
We don't often think about point-of-view, unless the artist forces us to. We must first realize that point-of-view is something that has changed over the history of art. It didn't even become a topic that could be discussed concretely until the Renaissance, when perspective was formulated (or reformulated if you prefer, since the Greeks discovered it first, then we forgot about it). For instance, the viewpoint in Medieval art was limited to only a few options: the viewer was either watching events unfold on a flat stage, or perhaps floating above a scene as a disembodied spectator. Duccio di Buoninsegna's Entry into Jerusalem (left) from The Maestà altarpiece is a good example of the latter. Duccio was anticipating the advances of Italian artists who followed closely after him in that he was beginning to think of objects in three-dimensional space, instead of like stacked playing cards. But since there is no horizon line and no consistent vanishing points, it's difficult to tell exactly where the viewer would be standing in relation to the subject.

Detail from Holy Trinity, Masaccio, 1427
What Renaissance artists like Brunelleschi and Masaccio finally realized is that in real space, parallel lines appear to recede to a single point on the horizon, called a vanishing point. When the artist placed the subject in believable space, it suddenly gave the viewer a "way into" the work—he could determine his own relationship in space to the subject. For instance, in Massacio's famous Holy Trinity fresco (left), the lines of the barrel vault above the Holy Trinity recede downward to a single point near the viewer's eye level, thus creating the illusion that the viewer is looking up at the Godhead.

Why should you care? Because since the advent of perspective, point-of-view is no longer arbitrary; it can carry meaning. Does the artist make you hover above the scene as a detached observer, or does he place you into the scene? If he places you into it, does your position in relation to the subject have significance? Are you gazing up at the subject, level with it, or looking down at it? All of these questions were immediately explored to their fullest. Frescos on church domes depicted saints and angels as seen from below.  Instead of seeing holy martyrs stacked like sardines at eye-level, the viewers could crane their necks and gaze up at their blessed posteriors as they were carried to heaven by angelic children.

Scapegoat Studio, 2010
The invention of the camera forced us again to reconsider point-of-view. You can put a camera anywhere—on an airplane, on a tripod, on the ground. The placement of the camera has an impact on our interpretation of the work. Had it not been for the influence of modern cinema, I probably would have never considered putting the viewer belly-down in the dirt next to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11, right). It's unorthodox to be sure, and you probably won't find an illustration like this in any Sunday school materials. We'd much rather see Jesus' face. In fact, we'd rather be standing next to him, looking with pity down on that "sinner." Maybe we think to ourselves, I would have shown her mercy! But what does the point-of-view here say about our relationship with Jesus? Because of our sins, we belong in the dirt with the adulterous woman, clinging to the hem of Jesus' robe. We dare not even lift our eyes to his. And yet, his loving hand reaches down to touch us, to forgive our sins, and to lift us up out of the dust.

So the next time you look at a painting, a photograph, or illustration, give at least a few seconds' thought to your point-of-view. You might see something the artist is wanting you to see.

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