Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity employs reverse perspective, a term first used by Russian Orthodox theologian Pavel Florensky (who was martyred in 1935 by the NKVD). Instead of lines reaching their focal point in the background (as in western art), in icons they converge in the foreground. If you can imagine a painting of a long road, it is larger in the foreground and gradually gets smaller as the lines converge in the background. Eastern Orthodox Icons frequently do the reverse. If one looks at the table and footstools in Rublev’s Icon, the foreground appears smaller than the background. Why do Icons employ this ‘reverse perspective’? In the words of Fr Gabriel Bunge,
Like the church’s preaching of the word, icon painting makes use of its own principles. It consciously submits to its own rules and thus renounces much that is essential for profane painting. So, it rejects what the world considers to be the natural, or central perspective, which issues from the standpoint of the beholder, and chooses what can be considered the un-artistic reverse perspective, which forces the beholder to surrender his own standpoint, his sense of distance.
The divergence of lines into ‘infinite space’ is a common technique used by iconographers. Instead of creating distance the Icon ‘meets the viewer’. According to art historian Solrunn Nes, ‘It is as if the spectator is being looked at by the person in the portrait...the icon is subject to neither the laws of nature nor the reason of man. The icon is thus no illusion of the physical, visible world, but a vision of the spiritual, invisible world.’ This formal technique employed by Rublev underlines the theological matter of his Icon. Do we view the Icon or does the Icon view us?
An understanding of Orthodox Church architecture is important to grasp Rublev’s intent. This Icon would have been on the east facing Iconostasis. Behind which lay the Sanctuary and altar, normally cut off from the sight of the laity. The Bishop or Priest would offer the sacrifice of the Eucharist in the Sanctuary, facing east his back to the congregation. The little niche in the table in Rublev’s Icon identifies this table as an altar, since this niche would be on the east side of the altar, usually containing the Eucharist or relics. With that in mind, we now see how the central figure (Christ) is actually in front of the altar (its west side) taking the place of the officiating Priest. The Father and Holy Spirit (and the viewer) are behind the altar. This reversal of perspective is a key part to Rublev’s Icon. In the words of Bunge,
The foreground of the picture in reality lies behind, so that the beholder sees something face-to-face that he can actually only see from behind. What if the icon, therefore, secures for the viewer an insight into the event – and this is indeed its essence – that would otherwise not be accessible to him at all?
It is important to realise that perspective is a central aspect to Icons. Our point of view is frequently reversed, so that the viewer is taken behind the scene, so to speak. Perspective is also treated ‘hierarchically’ in Icons, so that the most important figure is usually exaggerated in size. Since this is an Icon of the Trinity one doesn’t see that technique employed but it is evident in other Orthodox Icons (cf. Icons of Daniel in the Lion’s Den). The perspective of time is also treated relatively in Icons. Frequently Icons will present various scenes in the life of Jesus or a saint, not in sequence but simultaneously. Thus the Icon is past present and future.
Rublev’s use of inverse perspective is a subtle reminder that the viewer is not on the outside looking in, but rather is privileged enough to be allowed to go behind the Iconostasis and have an inside view of the Mysterium Trinitatis. Ultimately this is only possible because of the work of the Trinity for us.