Ekphrasis: Image and Text

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel
source: Wikimedia Commons
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, by Pieter Bruegel, is described in W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts

The manuscript of W. H. Auden's Musee des Beaux Artssource: Wikimedia CommonsThe manuscript of Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts

Mythological Panel painting illustrating Vergil's <cite />AeneidHouses of the Vedii, Lower House, Mythological Panel painting illustrating Vergil's Aeneid, now in the National Archaeological Museum, NaplesThere are many complicated examples of ekphrasis, such as this mural found at Pompeii. This image reverses the traditional definition of the term, depicting a scene from Virgil’s Aeneid, beginning at XII.585.

Although there are plenty of examples of ekphrasis in classical literature, the earliest extant instructions on how to compose one and what its functions are appear in the Hellenistic composition handbooks known as progymnasmata (here is an example, by Aphthonius). These handbooks were designed to train young people in public speaking, and they taught that an ekphrasis was not meant to be composed for its own sake, but it should rather be a part of a longer oration. In this context, the ekphrasis served to evoke a vivid picture in the mind of the audience so as to sway its members’ emotions and prepare them for the subsequent analytical and/or narrative exposition of the issue at hand. An ekphrasis could be composed in any style; it could be used as an introduction (proemium), substituted in the place of a narrative, or inserted as a pointed digression. When inscribed around an image, such as an icon, the ekphrasis functioned to provide commentary and/or guide the viewer’s interpretation of the patron’s intent. Occasionally—and this is especially true for the late antique and Byzantine period—an entire oration could be comprised of an ekphrasis, which functioned allegorically to illustrate either vice or virtue, creation or destruction, wisdom or folly, temperance or intemperance—but always with a rhetorical goal, embedded in a specific historical context.

One relatively recent example of ekphrasis is W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts.” The poem’s description of the plowman in Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus provides an interpretation of the poem and places the image in the context of Auden’s visit to the Brussels Museum and the other works of the “old masters” kept there. William Carlos Williams puts the image to a much different use in his poem “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” however, focusing only on an interpretation of the painting without any contextualization.

While these examples suggest that in practice ekphrasis is not limited to one specific use, contemporary attitudes toward the term have grown out of a definition of it that emphasizes literary (poetic) representation—with all the ambiguities, tensions, and contradictions the notion entails. Thus ekphrasis has been variously theorized as mimesis, as art criticism, as an intermediary between the visual and the verbal, as appropriation of the foreign and the “other,” as a vehicle of pleasure and of the politics of pleasure, and as an object of semiotic or Freudian analysis. Recently, however, there has been a return to a fuller appreciation of the rhetorical goals and functions of ekphrasis and to its re-integration into the rhetorical classroom.

For further reading:

Brubaker, Leslie, Vision and Meaning in Ninth-Century Byzantium: Image as Exegesis in the Homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus
Elkins, James, On Pictures and the Words That Fail Them
Kennedy, George, Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition
Krieger, Murray, Ekphrasis: The Illusion of the Natural Sign
Lessing, Gotthold E., Laokoon: On the Limits of Painting and Poetry
Mitchell, W. J. T., Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation
Robillard, Valerie and Els Jongereel, eds. Pictures into Words: Theoretical and Descriptive Approaches to Ekphrasis
Sturken, Maria and Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking
Wagner, Peter, ed. Icons, Texts, Iconotexts: Essays on Ekphrasis and Intermediality

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