Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
16.09.09, Johnston, et al., eds., The Art of Vision

The Medieval Review

16.09.09, Johnston, et al., eds., The Art of Vision

With its origins in a March 2010 workshop at the Freie Universität Berlin, The Art of Vision: Ekphrasis in Medieval Literature and Culture, edited by Andrew James Johnston, Ethan Knapp, and Margitta Rouse, offers the reader a wide-ranging exploration of the trope of ekphrasis, with the goal of "situat[ing] ekphrasis in the contexts of contemporary medieval debates in order to demonstrate how...ekphrasis responds to a plethora of challenges, ranging from Lollard iconophobia to the problem of the gaze in aristocratic culture, from the visionary experience of medieval mysticism to the issue of the materiality of the aesthetic object in ecclesiastical and secular cultures alike, or to the question of visual art as a form of signification that probes the very boundaries of the signifying process itself" (7). By focusing on the "poetic experience of the visual" (10), a second but no less important goal of the collection is to reflect on and engage with the traditional boundaries that distinguish the medieval from the modern.

Central to understanding the breadth of the volume is a recognition of the different definitions of ekphrasis, classified by the editors in their fluid and useful introduction as "narrow" and "broad" (3, 4). The former, defined by James Heffernan in 1993 (and quoted on page 3) as "the verbal representation of visual representation," is probably the definition that comes to mind most immediately; but the latter, which emphasizes more "the issue of detailed description and the problem of the lifelikeness of verbal depiction" (5), was actually the defining aspect of ekphrasis for antiquity through the early modern period. One of the most valuable aspects of the collection, then, is that it illuminates these different understandings of the trope of ekphrasis, an illumination equally useful to all literary scholars, regardless of their period of specialization.

The volume is dominated by essays with English texts at their focus. Sarah Stanbury, John M. Bowers, and Hans Jürgen Scheuer explore various Chaucerian texts in their contributions; Ethan Knapp considers works by Chaucer, Gower and Hoccleve; Anke Bernau and Larry Scanlon study the Pearl; Claudia Olk compares the late fifteenth-century Digby Play of Mary Magdalene with The Winter's Tale; and Darryl J. Gless focuses on The Faerie Queene, Book I, or The Legend of Holinesse. Andrew James Johnston and Margitta Rouse analyze Gavin Douglas's Middle Scots Palice of Honor, composed c. 1500. Continental literatures are represented as follows. Valerie Allen writes on an early twelfth-century Latin poem by Baudri of Bourgeuil; Kathryn Starkey explores Gottfried of Strassburg's thirteenth-century Tristan; and Suzanne Conklin Akbari investigates Christine de Pizan's Livre de la Mutacion de Fortune (1403).

This list is intended to give readers of this review a quick sense of the content of the volume; however, it is critically important that the editors of the volume do not organize it in a linguistic manner--nor for that matter, a strictly chronological one. The list reveals the chronological range of this volume, but more interesting--and not revealed by the list--are the extremely broad and intellectually stimulating approaches to the volume's topic. It is not always the case that essay collections cohere so well while at the same time probing radically different aspects of the designated subject matter. It is these different aspects that provide the structure of the volume, and in what follows, I will give a brief overview of these sections and their papers; as the individual contributions are often highly detailed and steeped in the secondary literature pertaining to the work under discussion, I will forgo the attempt to thoroughly summarize each paper, instead selecting just one aspect that stands out in each.

As its title, "Ekphrasis and the Object," suggests, the first of the book's four sections includes essays that explore the relationship between ekphrasis and the material culture of the Middle Ages. Allen's essay, based on the ekphrasis in Baudri's poem of a tapestry of William the Conqueror's deeds, is a particularly felicitous choice here, foregrounding the shortcomings of modern (nineteenth-century and more recent) definitions of ekphrasis for medieval poetry and suggesting that "[e]kphrasis incants rather than describes" (28), a verb choice that conveys both the technical skill of a poet producing ekphrasis and the bewitching effect that that ekphrasis has on its reader in its creation in the reader's mind of an object, whether or not that object exists in a real material form.

A different connection to the material is found in Stanbury's exploration of the catalogues of "material and made things" (36) in Chaucer's "The Former Age." She argues here that Chaucer's lexical choices between words of French or Old English origin reflect "an engagement with historical change and linguistic translation" (38). Though not immediately recognizable as ekphrases themselves, Stanbury sees these catalogues, which describe technology or its absence, as serving a similar function to other ekphrases, namely, imposing an order on time. Such a function, as Stanbury notes, is perceived differently in Conklin Akbari's contribution--the fact that the author engages with Conklin Akbari's essay is an example of the cohesiveness of the volume.

The last essay in this section, Bower's "Speaking Images? Iconographic Criticism and Chaucerian Ekphrasis," has at its core the problematic assumption that a medieval audience would necessarily and immediately recognize the subject matter of art works. In a rich essay that draws on much scholarship, including by Panofsky and Barthes, Bowers reads select ekphrases against contemporary Lollard iconoclasm. For example, with a careful reading of Book I of the House of Fame, Bowers shows how Chaucer's "version of iconoclasm is not breaking images but ignoring them" (72).

Deftly moving away from the material, Olk's essay, with its focus on the noli me tangere episode between Christ and Mary Magdalen, introduces the second group, entitled "The Desire of Ekphrasis." Central to these essays is a concern with the act of seeing, both of the works' readers/audiences and of the works' internal figures. Addressing among other topics how the immaterial is materialized in theatrical performance, Olk understands ekphrasis in the broad, medieval and classical way, "whereby the audience is drawn into the narrative as eyewitnesses" (84), and not as a description of a specific visual object. Exploring how drama fits into this ekphrastic tradition, Olk guides the reader to a heightened awareness of the visual aspect of the Digby Play (for example, in the plurality of locations staged during the play), an awareness that causes the reader to reflect on their experience of the senses, not in order to entirely dismiss what they see as untrustworthy, but to recognize that the physical process of seeing the visible may require an allegorical interpretation in order to also "see" the invisible.

In her contribution, "Feeling Thinking: Pearl's Ekphrastic Imagination," Bernau considers how the poem's use of ekphrasis "conceptualizes the craft of imaginative composition" (102). Her essay draws extensively on medieval memory theory, and offers rich insight into the function of image, both in memory and in poetic rhetoric.

Framed by the importance of the visual in Gottfried von Strassburg's text, Starkey's essay concentrates on the presence of internal viewers in selected ekphrastic passages and on their (internal) process of seeing. This leads her to draw attention to the manipulative nature of visualizing rhetoric: for example, in the first ekphrastic passage discussed, which details Tristan's flaying of the stag, the internal audience is so awed by Tristan's skill that it is "rendered...putty in Tristan's hands" (135). In contrast, the reader's experience of this ekphrasis has been interrupted several times, foregrounding the uncritical gaze of the internal audience and, ultimately, making the topic of the ekphrasis "enslavement to the image" (135), thereby serving a didactic and warning function for the reader.

The idea of manipulation that the visual exercises in Starkey's examples takes a different form in Gless's "Ekphrasis and Religious Ideology in Spenser's Legend of Holiness," the first essay of Part Three, The Epistemology of Ekphrasis. Gless convincingly posits that Spenser's readers are led to "perceive far more visual specificity in the poem than it actually provides" (151), that is to say, that the ekphrases under discussion create an initial expectation in the reader that s/he will be provided detailed visual descriptions, while in effect they activate the reader's inner visual perception through other means. For example, rather than provide the visual emblems that denote the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy (loaves of bread, sick people in bed, etc.), "we are induced to 'see' the inward, mental activity that makes such works of outward generosity authentically charitable" (163). Critical to Gless's reading is familiarity with the doctrinal contexts of Spenser's poem; for those not well-versed in these, Gless provides a succinct overview, making the essay accessible and enjoyable for all.

"Facing the Mirror: Ekphrasis, Vision, and Knowledge in Gavin Douglas's Palice of Honour" has at its heart the notion of honor, and how ekphrasis in this dream allegory serves an ideological function. The object that initiates ekphrasis is a magical mirror, which offers an encyclopedic view of past honorable deeds, described with reference to famous authors' accounts; the mirror also has healing properties for the viewer--here the authors discuss connections with the divine. The richness of this mirror contrasts with the very limited narrative motivation and significance it is given explicitly in the text, and it is this gap that leads the authors to tease out the role of the mirror as an instrument of allegory (here they draw on Conklin Akbari's 2004 reading of Augustine), ultimately suggesting that the presentation of a "mirror within the mirror of allegory, which depicts honorable deeds...suggests that the multifaceted ways in which we see this mirror...might provide a clue to understanding Douglas's specifically political poetics of honor" (175).

Concluding the third section is Conklin Akbari's "Ekphrasis and Stasis in Christine de Pizan's Livre de la Mutacion de Fortune," which investigates how ekphrasis, by momentarily suspending time for the reader, is able to impose order on time, and how these static moments serve as a "template for self-improvement and spiritual reform" (185). Because Conklin Akbari discusses Christine's work with reference to several other medieval works and ideas, including earlier universal histories, Boethian and Ovidian concepts of change, and Alan of Lille's ekphrasis on the Seven Liberal Arts in his Anticlaudianus, her essay in particular will be of interest to a wide range of readers.

The fourth and final section of the volume, "The Borders of Ekphrasis," contains Knapp's "Faces in the Crowd. Faciality and Ekphrasis in Late Medieval England," Scheuer's "The Soul of Ekphrasis. Chaucer's 'Merchant's Tale' and the Marriage of the Senses," and Scanlon's "Ekphrasis, Trope of the Real; or, What the Pearl-Dreamer Saw." For both Knapp and Scanlon, modern scholars--Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes, respectively--provide theoretical jumping off points; Scheuer begins with a description of his experience of pictures by the French photographer and video artist Bruno Baltzer, which leads him to Aristotle. All three of these essays share an interest in the different ways in which humans construct (or fail to construct) meaning. Knapp zeroes in on late medieval English poetic representations of the human face in a crowd, exploring a range of functions for faciality, but deliberately moving away from reading faces as symbolic of characters. In a fascinating reading of Hoccleve's Series, for example, Knapp shows how that author, trying to identify with the aid of a mirror the signs of madness visible to others, fails: instead of reading faces allegorically, Knapp observes that Hoccleve advocates "communynge" (223).

Scheuer's contribution focuses on Chaucer's "Merchant's Tale," reading this exemplum of marriage not only as an "expanded ekphrasis, but also, and more importantly, as a treatment of ekphrasis" (226). Against ancient and medieval theories that articulate image production in the mind, Scheuer sees ekphrasis as a mode that can produce and observe mental images (229), and posits that what is of real interest in Chaucer's text is how the text and its omissions of ekphrases where they might be expected set into motion the faculties of imagination, judgment, and memory, an approach based on Matthew of Vendôme's theoretical treatment of ekphrasis.

Scanlon's essay is particularly felicitous as the last of the volume, as one of its focal points is the dismantling of the distinctions that modernity sees as separating itself from the Middle Ages, most strongly the idea that realism is a modern phenomenon (245). With the goal of looking at the relation of ekphrasis to realism and exploring medieval roots of modern concepts of "the real," Scanlon offers a detailed and illuminating analysis of ekphrasis in the Pearl, in particular that of the foundations of the Heavenly City. In some ways, Scanlon's essay touches on materiality, and as such neatly brings the volume back to the concerns of its first section, "Ekphrasis and the Object."

That a reader is drawn to make connections among the essays in the different parts of this book--as an active reader no doubt will be--bears witness to the overall cohesiveness of the essays, an aspect that should encourage the reader to peruse all the essays in this volume, regardless of a reader's specific area of medieval--or modern--specialization. That said, the volume will appeal in particular to scholars of English works, as they will be familiar with the greater number of texts treated here. Those not as well steeped in medieval and early modern English literature will nonetheless find much of value in this collection, and will certainly have their understanding of ekphrasis significantly enriched. The editors are to be commended for so thoughtfully compiling this collection, as are all of the contributors for their stimulating contributions.