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Chapter II: The Elements of Perspective (page 3)

The Elements of Perspective

Fig. 2.6 The Flying Fish of Tyre (ca. 1170). Ms. 81, the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

Psychologically speaking, most pictures look as if they were seen through a window - none of the objects seems to pop out into the space of the room; the scenes they depict appear to be entirely behind the surface of the painting. The evidence for this psychological observation comes from the exception to this rule. In these rare exceptions, we see the lengths to which an artist must go to coax the spectator into relinquishing the assumption that the entire scene is behind a window. Take for instance an anonymous illumination of the twelfth century (Figure 2.6). Because the fish occludes part of the frame, we assume that it is flying in front of the page. But to attribute this perceptual effect to the occlusion of a section of the frame implies that, in the absence of this device, the scene would be perceived to be entirely beyond the page. In other words, even in pre-perspectival pictorial representations, we tend to perceive a picture frame as the frame of a window through which we can look into the virtual space depicted by the picture. One of the most brilliant applications of this method is in Jan van Eyck's Annunciation (Figure 2.7). In this diptych,9 we see the Angel Gabriel and Mary represented in a gray simulation of figures sculpted in the round, standing on octagonal pedestals. Behind them, just touching the far surface of the pedestals, we see a black mirror-like surface in which the statues appear to be reflected, framed by dark moldings, part of which are occluded by the angel's left wing and by Mary's cloak. The illusion of protrusion is so strong that it is quite difficult to believe that this is just a painting, rather than a reproduction of a pair of sculptures.10

It is possible to achieve the same effect by propagation, that is, to have object A occlude the frame, and to suggest (whether by occlusion or other means) that object B is in front of object A: The result is that object B seems to be in front of the picture plane. Such is one of the interesting perspective effects used by Mantegna in his frescoes for the Ovetari Chapel (Figure 2.8). Martyrdom of Saint James, the railing appears to be attached to the front of the picture frame; that is why the torso of the soldier leaning over it appears to emerge into the space of the chapel, above the floor onto which Saint James's head will roll when it is severed.

LEFT Fig.2.7. Jan van Eyck, Annunciation (after 1432). Oil on wood. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Fresco. Lugano-Castagnola, Switzerland.   RIGHT Fig.2.8.Mantegna, Martyrdom of Saint James (1451-5). Fresco. Ovetari Chapel, Eremitani Church, Padua.

Returning now to our exposition of the elements of perspective, there are three geometric properties of central projection that we must understand in order to proceed with the analysis of the psychology of perspective.

9 A diptych is a pair of painted panels hinged together.

10 MOVE TO CHAPTER ON TROMPE L'OEIL A similar effect was later achieved by Raphael in his little-known depiction of a life-size maenad below the School of Athens in the Stanza di Segnatura of the Vatican. Even standing right in front of the painting, one has to look twice to be sure that it is not a sculpture or a bas-relief.

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