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Special Communication |

“The El Greco Fallacy” Fallacy

Matthew P. Simunovic, MB, BChir, PhD1,2
[+] Author Affiliations
1Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
2Save Sight Institute, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia
JAMA Ophthalmol. 2014;132(4):491-494. doi:10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2013.5684.
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To what extent does an artist’s work represent his or her perceptual world, and to what extent can attributes of his or her work be ascribed to sensory defects? These issues lie at the center of a conjecture more than a century old, which has been termed the El Greco fallacy. The El Greco fallacy posits that the elongation evident in El Greco’s art reflects an underlying perceptual elongation of objects caused by astigmatism. The “logical” refutation of this theory argues that any perceptual elongation that El Greco might have experienced as a result of astigmatism would have caused not only his subjects to be elongated but also his canvas. Hence, it should have been unnecessary for him to elongate his paintings to match his perception. This objection is important because it warns us against drawing the erroneous conclusion that an artist’s work represents a facsimile of his or her perception. However, an analysis of the effects of astigmatism on the retinal image suggests that this “logical” refutation of the El Greco fallacy promulgates another fallacy—that of astigmatism as a source of a constant perceptual error.

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Figure 1.
The Patron Saint of Spectacle Makers, “Saint Jerome,” as Cardinal, by El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos)

Oil on canvas, circa 1610 through 1614. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Figure 2.
Schematic Eye and Ray Diagram Representing Image Formation by an Eye Having “With the Rule” Myopic Astigmatism

A, Light from a distant point source is focused as two lines: first, as a horizontal line, then as a vertical line with an intervening blur circle “of least confusion.” B, Light from a nearby point source. The vertical line and circle of least confusion now fall behind the retina, while the horizontal line lies closer to the retina.

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Figure 3.
Schematic Diagram Demonstrating the Effect of Pupil Size on the Magnitude of Blur Along the Vertical Meridian Resulting From Astigmatism

Light (dotted lines) from a point source is focused before the retina, resulting in blurring. A, Rays of light entering at the edge of a pupil with diameter D mm result in blur along the vertical measuring B mm. B, Rays of light entering the periphery of a pupil of diameter D/2 mm result in blur measuring B/2 mm.

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Figure 4.
Schematic Representation of the Effect on Retinal Image Size of Astigmatic Blurring

The absolute magnitude of blurring is constant, regardless of image size. Total image size can be considered the sum of the focused image size plus any elongation due to blurring. A, The line represents a retinal image measuring 1 mm (represented by the black line), which has been elongated as a result of astigmatic blurring by 0.3 mm (represented by the gray line). The total image size is 1.3 mm. B, The line represents the retinal image measuring 0.5 mm, which has fallen subject to the same degree of astigmatic blurring (0.3 mm), resulting in a total image size of 0.8 mm. Thus, the smaller retinal image is proportionally more elongated (by 0.8/0.5 = 1.6 times) than the larger image (1.3/1.0 = 1.3 times). This is in contrast to a simple magnifying effect assumed by the traditional refutation of the El Greco fallacy, in which the percentage of elongation is implied to be constant (drawing not to scale).

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"The El Greco fallacy" fallacy. JAMA Ophthalmol 2014;132(4):491-4.