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Omnivoyance: The Use of Optical experimented to determine to which degree

the direction of the eyes and the head’s

Illusion in the Depiction of the orientation work together to define the
Face of God in Medieval Art direction of the gaze. 2
Standing on Meyer Schapiro’s brief
historical survey from 1973, 3 one of the first
by Lasse Hodne
Department of Art and Media Studies
who brought attention to the phenomenon
Norwegian University of Science and Technology was Pliny the Elder (AD 23–AD 79). In his
(NTNU) Naturalis Historia, he described a painting by the artist Famulus of the goddess Athena
‘whose eyes are turned to the spectator from
Abstract: The illusion of omnivoyance (also called whatever side he may be looking.’ 4
the Mona Lisa effect) as an embodiment of
In the following century, Lucian (AD 125–
mysterious powers is suited for the
representation of the Supreme Being in any AD 180) observed about an image of the
religion, but its central position in Christian art goddess Hera in the Temple at Hierapolis: ‘. . .
may be due to the fact that the Christian god is if you stand over against it, it looks you in the
defined as all-seeing. The conscious use of this
effect throughout the Middle Ages is testified to
face, and as you pass it the gaze still follows
not only by the systematic use of the full-face you, and if another approaching from a
view in representations of divinity but also by the different quarter looks at it, he is similarly
inclusion of inscriptions that emphasise God’s affected.’ 5
absolute nature in the same way as omnivoyance
does. The first who attempted to give this optical
illusion a scientific explanation was Ptolemy
(AD 90–AD 168), who, more than a thousand
Scientifically speaking, the illusion of
years before the introduction of central
omnivoyance, the feeling that the eyes of a
perspective, described the phenomenon by
person depicted in a painting follow you, is a
means of terms normally associated with
well-known optical illusion that only works
Renaissance perspective, like ‘visual cone’ and
with flat images. In order for the effect to be
‘visual axis.’ 6
achieved, the face must be painted or drawn
on a flat surface with the eyes directed out of
the picture at an angle of 90 degrees with 2
Todorović, pp. 3549–3562.
respect to the picture plane (Fig. 1). It may be 3
Schapiro, p. 39, n. 80. See also Barasch, p. 41;
turned to us en face but not necessarily so. In Koerner, p. 127.
the psychological literature, the phenomenon Quoted through Schapiro, p. 39, n. 80; Pliny,
Naturalis Historia 35, p. 149.
is most commonly referred to as ‘the Mona 5
Lucian, p. 73.
Lisa effect’ named after Leonardo da Vinci’s 6
Emphasising that the omnivoyance effect is
famous painting in the Louvre in Paris. limited to images painted on panel and not to
sculpture, Ptolemy concluded that: ‘. . . the reason
Cognitive psychologists have dedicated
is that the true direction of the painted face’s gaze
some attention to the omnivoyance effect, is perceived by means only of the stationary
trying to find out whether or not the optical disposition of the visual cone that strikes the
illusion also works along the vertical axis as painted face. The visual faculty does not recognize
this, but the gaze remains fixed solely along the
well as the horizontal. 1 Others have
visual axis. . . . Thus, as the observer moves away,
he supposes that the image’s gaze follows him.’
Boyarskaya and Hecht, p. 31. Ptolemy, p. 124.

Hodne – Omnivoyance / 1
Fig. 1


Demonstration of
omnivoyance effect based
on photos of busts on the
Gianicolo Hill in Rome. [1-1-
A] Photo of a bust seen
frontally. [1-1-B] Photo of
the same bust turned
approximately 45° to the

Fig. 1


[1-2-A] Photo of a
photocopy of 1-1-A. [1-2-B]
The photocopy (not the
original) turned approx-
imately 45° to the left.

Fig. 1


[1-3-A and B] Figures 1-2-A and B

cropped to eliminate the frames.
Although 1-3-B is actually turned
away from us, our impression is
that he is looking directly at us.

Amongst medieval sources can be anyone, implying that it was a miracle of God
mentioned the early-13th-century Ekphrasis and not an optical effect caused by the image.
on the Church of the Holy Apostles of Nicholas Cusa began the first chapter of his De
Mesarites, where the eyes of the image of the visione Dei–On the Vision of God (1453) with a
Pantocrator were described as being ‘Wholly description of an image that he called ‘the
directed toward all at once and at the same Icon of God,’ writing that ‘regardless of the
time toward each individually.’ 7 Mesarites’ place from which each of you looks at it, each
formulation, similar to those of his will have the impression that he alone is being
predecessors and almost identical to that of looked at by it. To the brother who is situated
Nicholas of Cusa, bore only a slight trace of in the east it will seem that the face is looking
medieval mysticism, only in that the context toward the east; to the brother in the south,
concerned judgement. For the eyes that fall that the face is looking toward the south; to
upon the righteous are mild and gentle, he the brother in the west, that it is looking
said, whereas to ‘. . . those . . . who are westward.’ 10
condemned by their own judgment they are
scornful and hostile.’ 8 With the exception of Cusa, who included
The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine self-portraits as well as religious icons
(Varazze), written later in the same century, amongst his examples, all the above are
repeated the theme of judgement between images of gods. Not surprisingly, in antiquity
good and evil. He told the story of a young as well as in the Middle Ages, the
notary in Constantinople who discovered that omnivoyance effect was seen as something
the eyes of the image of the Saviour in Hagia mysterious, well suited for the representation
Sophia appeared to follow him as he moved in of divinities. The problem is that whereas the
front of the image. 9 Known as the guarding frontal view of the face is almost compulsory
glance of the Lord, it is clearly connected with for certain representations of the Lord in
the question of Divine Providence since the medieval tradition, it is not quite as common
beneficial protection of the Lord’s eyes was a in antiquity. Take, for instance, the fifth-
reward for having rejected an offer from the century pediment sculptures on the Temple of
Devil at an earlier stage. However, there was Zeus in Olympia, Greece (Fig. 2). The figures
no mention that the same would happen to on each side are arranged in such a way that a
chariot group on one side is counterbalanced
by a similar group on the other, thus, making
Mesarites, p. 870. See also Shearman, p. 158; an almost perfect symmetry. As one would
Koerner, p. 127. expect, the main character, the god, occupies
Mesarites, p. 870. the central position; strangely (and differently
The 15th-century English translation of the
Golden Legend by William Caxton said that the
from the Christ in Majesty, as will be seen
notary kneels in front of a crucifix. Caxton made below), though, he is not turned towards the
many additions to the original text on his own spectator.
account, and it is unlikely that the notary stood in
front of a crucifix. I have consulted the 1995 Italian
edition by Alessandro and Lucetta Vitale Brovarone
(p. 388), which reads ‘l’immagine del Salvatore’
(the image of the Saviour), which very well could
be taken to mean Pantocrator as in Mesarites’
version. Cusa, pp. 680–681.

Hodne – Omnivoyance / 2
Fig. 2 Temple of Zeus in Olympia, Greece, east and west pediments.

Fig. 3 Temple of Artemis on the island of Corfu in Greece, pediment.

In contrast, going even further back to the towards the spectator, was attached to the
archaic sculptures on the pediment of the aegis of Athena and depicted on shields to
Temple of Artemis on the island of Corfu in ward off evil. No wonder, if the powerful
Greece, the face of the central figure is turned effect of the staring eyes was associated with
towards us (Fig. 3). Can the choice of pose in the gaze of a demon, the Greeks were careful
this case be related to the fact that the central to represent their gods in the same way.
figure here is Medusa, a Gorgon, and hence a Concentrating on the use of this optical
kind of demon? The power of Medusa resided effect in European medieval art, especially in
in her glance, which could petrify. Her head, relation to the image of Christ in Majesty, the
which is almost always turned frontally omnivoyance effect as an embodiment of

Hodne – Omnivoyance / 3
mysterious powers is suited for the authorities took as a support of this view was
representation of the Supreme Being in any Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians: ‘. . . now
religion. Interestingly, the reason why it is we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face’
particularly exploited in Christianity may be (1 Corinthians 13:12; my italics). They
due to the fact that the Christian god is imagined that after death they would stand in
defined as, precisely, all-seeing. Just as God is front of him and that their view would be full
called ‘the Almighty’ or ‘the Eternal,’ he also face, exactly as in the mosaics and paintings
can be called ‘the All-Seeing’ because to the currently being discussed.
faithful his eyes follow everyone wherever What is interesting here is whether or not
they go. the frontal scheme was chosen because of its
In the Christian artistic tradition there is an inherent effect since the omnivoyance effect
intrinsic relationship between doctrine and was considered a fitting way to represent a
image. This can be seen in two ways. One has god who was believed to be, precisely,
to do with inscriptions, or, more precisely, omnipotent, omniscient, and all-seeing. The
words in the book that Christ holds in many of fact that in scenes related to his infancy, his
these works, that constitute a textual parallel miracles, or his passion Jesus is almost never
to the omnivoyance effect. The other is seen frontally whereas in scenes showing his
related to the opposition between God’s Second Coming he usually is certainly points in
human and divine aspects. this direction. One more important argument
Most of the works, such as frescoes and in favour of this view is that in representations
mosaics, that will be analysed belong to a of Christ in Majesty in apses, above doors, or
cycle, which means that they are part of a even in miniatures and book covers, Jesus
whole of scenes decorating the interior of a often is seen with a book in his hand,
church. In the medieval basilica building sometimes closed and showing only the cover
stories from the Genesis and the Gospels but usually open with the text legible. 12
usually were located on the longitudinal walls The text phrases found here constitute a
of the nave whereas Christ in Majesty or coherent group, referring mainly to the same
related subjects such as the so-called Traditio passages in the Bible. For example, in the
legis, often with elements from the 11th-century apse of Sant’Angelo in Formis
Apocalypse, are in the apse. 11 Analysing these near Capua, Italy, the image of the enthroned
scenes more closely, it can be found that in Saviour turns towards the spectator with a
the stories from the Gospels, which represent staring gaze, holding a book in his left hand.
the past, Christ’s face is almost never seen This shows the Latin text ego sum alfa et
frontally. It is mainly when he is represented o[mega] prim: et novisims from Revelation
in the way humans often believe that he will 22:13: ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the
appear in the future on Judgement Day or in First and the Last . . .’ (Fig. 4).
the Beatific vision that he turns to us frontally.
In the Beatific vision, the union with God is
conceived as a process enacted by a kind of
‘seeing.’ One of the sources that the church

11 12
This relationship (and difference) between The Christ in Majesty must be distinguished from
narrative and symbolical is analysed in Hodne the Traditio legis, where Christ hands over a scroll
2004, especially pp. 176–184. to Saint Peter.

Hodne – Omnivoyance / 4
letters in the book in his left hand, reading ego
sum pastor bonus et co[gnosco], are from John
10:14: ‘I am the good shepherd; and I know
[my sheep].’
A much later example is Rogier van der
Weyden’s Braque triptych in the Louvre, which
differs from the others in not being a Christ in
Majesty and the text not written in a book.
Instead, it can be seen in the midst of the rays
of light that issue from the head of Christ (Fig.
8). The text here reads ego sum panis vivus,
meaning ‘I am the living bread’ (John 6:51).
Despite the stylistic difference between this
example and the others, it has at least one
important thing in common with them: the
Fig. 4 Sant’Angelo in Formis glance of the Lord turned directly towards the
near Capua, Italy, apse (detail). spectator.
One final example, the impressive Christ
Another example of Christ holding the with benedictio greca from Saint Mark’s in
book beginning with ‘I am’ is found in the Rome, sums up much of this (Fig. 9). Here,
early-sixth-century Euphrasian Basilica in words from three different passages can be
Poreč, Croatia. Here are the words ego sum found. In addition to the ego sum lux that we
lux vera, which must be an echo of the ego found in Poreč, there are the phrases ego sum
sum lux mundi from John 8:12 (Fig. 5). 13 vita, which should be ego sum via et veritas et
Strategically, in the Deesis above the west vita, meaning ‘I am the way, the truth, and the
door lunette of Saint Mark’s Cathedral in life’ (John 14:6), as well as ego sum resurrectio,
Venice is found a text that refers precisely to meaning ‘I am the resurrection’ (John 11:25).
the door, reading ego sum ostium, which is It would be possible to investigate the
the ‘I am the door’ from John 10:9 (Fig. 6). origin and historical development of the book
Yet another example is represented by the in representations of Christ in Glory. Some
12th-century murals in the Catacomb of Saint early examples, such as at Santa Pudenziana in
Hermes on the old via Salaria in Rome, where Rome, show different words, but the mosaics
a Christ figure flanked by saints is seen above from Poreč demonstrate that the ego sum
the enthroned Virgin and Child (Fig. 7). 14 The already was used in this context in late
antiquity. Without doubt, amongst the
In his important article on ‘Frontal and Profile as
examples where Christ’s book is open and text
Symbolic Forms,’ Meyer Schapiro (p. 39) associated is legible, these two words are the most
the glance directed towards the observer with the common. What is more, the various ego sum
first person ‘I’ in speech: ‘It seems to exist both for utterances constitute a specific and well-
us and for itself in a space virtuously continuous
with our own. . . . That a figure of Christ holding a defined group. All the verses that have been
book inscribed Ego sum lux mundi should be drawn cited here and that are included in works of
full-face is obvious and natural, since it is art, except the alpha et omega, are from the
addressing the viewer.’
14 Gospel of John. If to the above series was
Osborne, pp. 322-326.

Hodne – Omnivoyance / 5
Fig. 5 Mosaics from the Euphrasian Basilica in Poreč, Croatia., top left.
Fig. 6 Deesis from the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice, west door lunette, top right.

Fig. 7 Murals in the Catacomb of Saint Hermes in Rome.

Fig. 8 The Braque triptych by Rogier van der
Weyden, detail (Paris, Louvre), top left.

Fig. 9 Apse mosaics from the church of San

Marco, Rome, top right.

Fig. 10 Enamel plaque of the Majestas Domini

from the Tortosa Cathedral
added only one more example–‘I am the true the mentioning of his name since the divine
vine’ (John 15:1)–we would have all of the so- name in Jewish tradition often was regarded
called ‘I am sayings’ or ‘seven declarations of as too sacred to be uttered. What is important
Grace’ from the Gospel of John, 15 which here is that as a substitute of a proper name,
differs from the other Gospels in that Jesus at he accepted the use of a descriptive name, a
length speaks about himself and his divine name that, in absence of a real name, enabled
role. Indeed, some passages can be man to recognize him by means of an
interpreted as statements about his divinity, appellation that revealed his true nature. His
as if he wanted to tell one and all that he name is what he is, and what he is is pure
himself was God. This is the case in chapter existence; ‘I am’ means that he existed always.
8:58, where he says, ‘before Abraham was, I He existed before, he exists now, and he will
AM.’ 16 Putting the present of the verb ‘to be’ still exist in the future. 17
before the past ‘was,’ he turns the tenses The ego sum in so many representations of
upside down. Moments in time are thus Christ’s majesty is not an incidental quotation
circumscribed by an eternal presence that from the Bible. The artist was not free to
confirms God as ‘the Eternal.’ choose any biblical verse that he might like.
Before returning to Christ’s statement of The consistent use of verses beginning with
‘ever presence’ and its relation to ego sum must be understood as deliberate
omnivoyance, lets first look at the words ‘I am,’ statements about Christ’s divine nature.
which are the same in this passage as in the There are possible objections to this. Can it
‘seven declarations,’ only here they are not be certain that the ‘I am’ in the phrase ‘I am
qualified by a specific noun, such as ‘door,’ the door’ has the same meaning as ‘I am’ in
‘bread,’ or ‘light.’ In fact, the words ‘I am,’ ego ‘before Abraham was, I am’? According to
sum in Latin or ego eimi in Greek, are of vital Kruse, the words ego eimi are used in three
importance here. God is twice hidden in this different ways in the Gospel of John: with a
passage, not only in the play with ‘I predicate (‘I am the light of the world’); with
am/Abraham was’ but even in the words ‘I am’ an implied predicate (‘I am he . . .’); and as an
alone. In the Old Testament, Moses, upon absolute (‘Before Abraham was, I am’). 18 Most
hearing the voice of God in the burning bush, agree that the latter, the absolute sense, must
asked what he should say when he returned be interpreted as a claim to divinity. Whether
to the people of Israel. If he said that he met the same can be said of the ‘seven I am’s’ is an
the god of their fathers, surely, they would ask open question. However, Coetzee suggested
what is his name. God’s reply was ‘I am who I this when, pointing to the fact that Jesus’
am’ and ‘Thus you shall say to the children of absolute ego eimi utterances in John 8
Israel, “I AM has sent me to you”’ (Exodus deliberately refer to the prophecies of Isaiah
Instead of giving a proper name, God said
that he existed and that existence (‘I am’) was
his name. It is not strange that God prohibited 17
According to Saint Augustine, the past and the
future are both derivative of the present. Past
Packer, p. 106. things are present in our memory while future
The King James translators capitalised ‘I AM’ things are present in our expectations. Saint
whenever they interpreted these words as a claim Augustine, p. 253. See also Hodne 2008, p. 80.
to divinity. Kruse, p. 138.

Hodne – Omnivoyance / 6
42–43, he concluded that the same probably around. The dialogue with the spectator
may be said of his ‘I am the light’ sayings. 19 suggested by the eye contact is incompatible
In any case, scholars are not really with the detachment required by a narrative
interested in what Jesus actually meant but in that, by necessity, must be confined to a
what medieval authorities thought about this realm different from that of the spectator.
question. It is they who transmitted their God’s divinity is thus his presence.
ideas to the painters and mosaicists of the Taken in isolation, it is possible to
period. One indication that the words ego sum demonstrate that the full-face view of Christ
in depictions of Christ’s majesty were in representations of his majesty is equivalent
supposed to be taken in its absolute sense is to a specific interpretation of the words ego
given by an enamel plaque showing the sum. The question remains as to whether or
Majestas Domini in mandorla, accompanied not only the face but even the omnivoyance
by the four tetramorphs, from the Tortosa effect associated with it can somehow be
Cathedral in Spain (Fig. 10). The writing in the related to the theological discussion of the
Lord’s book in this case is not one of the divine name. Is there a connection between
‘seven sayings’ but, precisely, the absolute God’s divine gaze, his seeing everything, and
statement from Exodus: Ego sum qui sum–‘I his eternity? The first is a spatial definition of
am who I am.’ his powers, the second a temporal one. Both
The reason for stressing the importance of of these faculties seem to converge in the idea
text phrases in a discussion concerning an of God as an absolute being. In his Hortatory
optical illusion has to do with the two ways of Address to the Greeks, Justin Martyr explicitly
representing Christ mentioned in the interpreted the ‘I am’ appellative of God in
beginning. Only in some very specific Exodus as a confirmation of his eternal being
situations is his head seen frontally: not in the or, as he said, God’s ‘ever existence.’ 20 What
‘stories’ from the Gospels but only when he can this ‘ever existence’ be if not the
‘appears’ after death will mankind see him full omnipresence of an omnivoyant God? Can it
face. Christ was said to be both true God and be anything else than the absolute being of
true man, meaning that he had two aspects. monotheism, theologically and philosophically
The Christ in Majesty is a representation of defined by absolutist categories such as
one of these aspects: the divine one. This idea omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience?
of divinity can be expressed visually as well as
verbally when it is realized that the ego sum
phrase in the book (to the extent that scholars
are entitled to interpret it in its absolute sense) Rome, July 2012
as an expression of God’s divinity is an exact © Lasse Hodne
verbal counterpart of facial frontality.
Thinking of it, it is quite obvious that if
there are different schemes or types for the
representation of God’s human and divine
aspects, the divine must be represented by
the full-face view. It cannot be the other way

19 20
Coetzee, p. 171. Saint Justin, p. 282. See also Bull, p. 404.

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