Book Review: Space, Time and Presence in the Icon: Seeing the World with the Eyes of God (Clemena Antonova)—By Emily Goetsch

Clemena Antonova. Space, Time and Presence in the Icon: Seeing the World with the Eyes of God. London: Anthem Press, 2009. 206 pages (HB, e-book available). £55.00. ISBN: 9780754667988.

In her monograph, Space, Time and Presence in the Icon: Seeing the World with the Eyes of God, Clemena Antonova reconsiders the medieval icon by re-evaluating the aesthetic theories that account for a perspective used in icons which incorporates different planes on vision into one scene. Antonova first published portions of this discussion in her 2005 Hortulus article, “Seeing the World with the Eyes of God: The Vision Implied by the Medieval Icon.” In this piece, she argues that the perspective and formal qualities of icons coincide with ideas of divine timelessness present in the doctrine of the Eastern Church; such ideas allow icons and viewers to transcend time and space through the presentation of multiple perspectives. These ideas are central components of Space, Time and Presence, though the book provides a much more intensive examination of the scholars who have theorized about icons in the past.  The book also develops a nuanced and detailed approach to the topics of visuality, perspective and time, and within this framework Antonova presents an alternative method of conceptualizating icons by addressing and re-situating scholarly and historical discussions of them. Because of this focus, the study is best suited for those who are already familiar with prominent theories on the visual properties and functions of icons.

Of great importance throughout both the article and the book is the term “reverse perspective,” which Antonova cites as being both essential and problematic in icon studies.  As in her Hortulus article, Antonova emphasizes the work of Russian artist and theorist Pavol Florensky (1882-1937) who developed the term as a way of describing the perspective adopted in icons.  This perspective presents the vanishing points outside of the picture plane causing elements that are far away to increase in size rather than recede into the distance, offering, therefore, an alternative presentation of time and space. Following this notion of iconic perspective, Antonova’s first chapter tackles the issue of pictorial time, introducing problems associated with the perception of time as it is understood in relation to linear perspective.  Furthermore, Antonova outlines the different uses of perspective in the icon and introduces Florensky’s ideas related to “reverse time” which fuel the reconsideration of icons throughout the book, helping to establish a framework for the study.

Extending the discussion of time and space from the first chapter, Chapter 2 continues to examine “reverse perspective,” demonstrating how Florensky’s theories appear visually in icons.  In addition to expanding upon Florensky’s ideas on “reverse perspective” which are so prominent in her Hortulus article, Antonova broadens her discussion by including additional theories of space developed by artist and theorist Lev Zhegin (1892-1969) and philologist Boris Uspensky (b. 1937).  Using a number of helpful diagrams, this section explains these theories, which address the largely Renaissance interest in vanishing points. Ultimately, Antonova suggests that, despite the conceptual advances made by these scholars in understanding the icon and “reverse perspective,” greater consideration needs to be given to the medieval theories that shaped conceptions of the icon.

In this vein, the third chapter begins to contextualize icons within medieval culture and suggests the importance of spiritual presence in both creating and using icons.  Citing examples that include the Eucharist, portraits of the deceased, iconoclastic discourses and the status of relics, Antonova offers convincing support for the significance of the concept of divine presence in Eastern Orthodox culture. Furthermore, by identifying the relationship between icons, portraits, relics and other art, Antonova emphasizes the symbolic function of icons, which was developed by Florensky.  In other words, she asserts that the icon was understood be endowed with aspects of the divine through its connections to portraits, relics and other traditions and eventually came to symbolize the presence of God, thereby further condensing time and space within the image.  As Antonova explains, this transformation is significant because, given the symbolic references perpetuated through such images, the medieval viewing of an icon can no longer be understood to provide a disinterested aesthetic experience but rather must be approached as an active encounter, in which the viewer acknowledges the historical associations embodied in the work.

As a result of this recognized need to re-evaluate icons, Chapter 4 proposes a new approach to understanding “reverse perspective.”  As in her Hortulus article, Antonova argues that in light of the extended associations presented in the icon, such works may have been developed as an expression of the timeless, spaceless perspective of God’s eternity.  In other words, because “reverse perspective” incorporates surfaces that cannot be seen simultaneously by the human eye, Antonova contends that scholars should consider the icon as a medieval representation of divine vision, which sees all planes and all perspectives at once time.  While these ideas form the core of Antonova’s conclusions in her Hortulus article, they extend further in Time, Space and Presence through Antonova’s consideration of the application of multiple planes and perspectives in art from considerably later periods.  Namely, she identifies the cubist construction of images which embraces the aesthetic of using numerous “simultaneous planes” in order to evade the limitations of time.  She argues that in both cubist art and in icons, the images are realistic because they make evident the varying vantage points and view rather than claiming to represent all aspects of space and time through a single perspective.

This sense that the use of such perspective in icons represented the way a divine figure would view a scene and, therefore, allowed earthly viewers to exceed their conception of time and space is a critical component of the Hortulus article that Antonova  developes further in her book. Time, Space and Presence examines these ideas not only by discussing the topic more thoroughly but also by testing such theories against a particular image at the end of the book. In this additional examination, Antonova addresses Andrey Rubluv’s (1350-1425) icon of the Holy Trinity in order to clarify and defend her approach to icons.  By using visual analysis to explain that the image is not only an icon but also a prototype carrying with it the implications of unquantifiable and unending time and space, Antonova demonstrates the value in re-considering icons aesthetically.

In summary, through its progression of chapters and the analysis provided in the case study, Space, Time and Presence encourages new ways of interpreting the medieval icon by asserting that Florensky’s theory of “reverse perspective” is not sufficient. In lieu of this accepted mode of interpretation, Antonova provides an alternative approach by suggesting that the use of multiple planes represented God’s supposed all-encompassing knowledge and vantage point; icons were designed as timeless renderings of a godly vision that transported viewers beyond earthly time and space.  These ideas form a fresh and innovative departure from and re-evaluation of earlier approaches to icons such as those presented by Florensky, Zhegin and Uspensky.  However, Antonova’s book does not intend to form a conclusive statement on how icons should be understood.  Rather, Antonova argues that the value of her argument lies primarily in the introduction of a new approach to the problem, which “illustrates the transformation from a religious to an aesthetic attitude” (142).

Space, Time and Presence in the Icon provides a rich theoretical history of how medieval icons have been viewed in the past and develops a number of new ideas by calling upon classical and medieval sources.  The text primarily serves as an innovative and engaging way of re-opening discussions on the icon and hopefully will function as a springboard for future discussions and study.

Emily Goetsch earned her BA in Art History from the University of Southern California and her MSc in Art History, Theory and Display from the University of Edinburgh. She is currently finishing her PhD in History of Art at the University of Edinburgh, where her work focuses on Iberian manuscripts produced during the tenth century and ideas of cross-cultural relations throughout the medieval world.


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