Saturday, June 22, 2013


Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors, 1533. Wikipedia.

There is a perspective trick used in the visual arts which can be used to manipulate proportion in an image to affect how it is perceived by the viewer.

 “An anamorphosis is a deformed image that appears in its true shape when viewed in some "unconventional" way. According toWebster's 1913 Dictionary: A distorted or monstrous projection or representation of an image on a plane or curved surface, which, when viewed from a certain point, or as reflected from a curved mirror or through a polyhedron, appears regular and in proportion; a deformation of an image.( When its effect depends upon viewing it from a certain point it is called Perspective Anamorphosis.

One well-known example in art history is the 1533 painting The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein. In this otherwise-straightforward double portrait the is an apparently unrecognizable long blob floating above the floor between the feet of the two subjects which can only be recognized as a skull, a memento mori (reminder of the inevitability of death) when viewed from a viewpoint below and to the left of the painting.

"The Ambassadors (1533) is a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger in the National Gallery, London. As well as being a double portrait, the painting contains a still life of several meticulously rendered objects, the meaning of which is the cause of much debate. It is also a much-cited example of anamorphosis in painting." (Wikipedia)

That skull represents an example of perspective anamorphosis, not recognizable until seen from the correct perspective. Now, what does any of this have to do with the great 3-Kings panel on McConkie Ranch near Vernal, Utah?

3-Kings panel, McConkie Ranch, Uintah County, UT.
Photograph: Peter Faris, September 1989.

On April 23, 2009, I posted a column titled Portraiture In Rock Art in which I discussed the central figure on the 3-Kings panel on McConkie Ranch. It explained my position that a portrayal with so many unique and identifiable features from anatomical details to clothing and accessories deserves to be thought of as a portrait of a specific individual, not just a generic figure. In that posting I wrote; “This figure also displays another interesting detail. When seen from the ground below, the figure appears in normal proportion. When observed from a vantage point near its height the figure is seen to be vertically elongated out of proportion (as seen in the photo above). This suggests that the hand that produced the work was guided by instructions from someone down below at ground level. I enjoy imagining a Fremont Indian artist and his young apprentice creating the portrait of an important man of the band or tribe. The young apprentice forced to climb the rocky crag with his tools and materials where he took direction from the master who stayed down on the ground below shouting to him to “make that line higher, no, a little down from there.” The result appears in realistic proportion from below on the ground, but it is elongated vertically when viewed from a raised viewpoint.”

Vertical proportion diagram (in head heights)
of central figure from 3-Kings panel.

Indeed, this figure measures eight head lengths in height as seen in this diagram, as opposed to the normal five and a half to six head heights seen in a normal human figure. This vertical elongation represents Perspective Anamorphosis, just like the skull seen in the Holbein painting. The only real difference is that I believe that in the McConkie Ranch example the perspective anamorphosis is caused as I said by the figures’ creation under direction from the ground below and the Holbein example is the purposeful result of the artist’s hand.



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