The Medieval Review 17.01.11

Brown, James H. Imagining the Text: Ekphrasis and Envisioning Courtly Identity in Wirnt von Gravenberg's Wigalois . Visualising the Middle Ages, 10. Leiden: Brill, 2015. pp. . $149.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-90-04-26918-7 (ebook).

Reviewed by:

Laura Iseppi De Filippis
Accademia di Belle Arti di Verona

James H. Brown's Imagining the Text: Ekphrasis and Envisioning Courtly Identity in Wirnt von Gravenberg's Wigalois discusses a thirteenth-century Middle High German romance in terms of visuality, suggesting that its long standing peripheral position among canonical works such as Erec, Parzival and Yvain should be reconsidered in the light of "the ekphrastic moments that contributed to the text's tremendous popularity" (4). In order to let surface the pivotal ekphrastic dimension of the romance, Brown approaches his material thematically and devotes each of the three chapters in part I to a different aspect of ekphrasis and the three chapters in part II to actual visualizations of the poem in manuscripts, prints and frescoes. Brown chooses to concentrate in particular on five significant ekphrases--"a magic belt (vv. 321-342), an enchanted stone of virtue (vv. 1477-1529), a golden wheel of Fortune (vv. 1823-1837; 1860-1869), a magnificent tomb built for the heathen queen Japhite (vv. 8228-8324), and finally, a castle-like tent atop Queen Larie's war elephant (vv. 10,342-10,408)" (15)--which he explores in detail first as "structuring devices," then as "integrative devices," and finally as "means of courtly self-representation." The volume is clearly indexed and lavishly equipped with 39 color and black-and-white illustrations.

Some of the readings Brown provides are indeed quite suggestive and I appreciated his attempt at exploring rhetorical structuring in a genre which, as he points out, is not usually investigated in these terms. He notices, for instance, a tendency to employ amplification, synaesthesia and memory alongside ekphrasis as structuring devices. This is the case, he notices, with the description of a marvelous tomb which participates "in the narrative's amplificatory tendency toward an ever increasing number of longer and more superlative ekphrases, and [acts] as a 'micro-narrative'; it allows the audience a splendid opportunity to re-envision pivotal scenes from earlier in the text while simultaneously previewing important themes yet to come" (42). Over all I found Brown's analysis particularly convincing when he lets surface the complexity of the rhetorical structuring in a romance which does not completely fit the mold of the so-called Doppelweg model: In these instances, his certainly well researched argument benefits romance studies at large.

On the other hand, I also felt that Brown's choice to identify ekphrasis as the ultimate rhetorical structure at work in Wirnt von Gravenberg's Wigalois is rather undermined by a basic lack of poignancy in quite a few of the ekphrases he singles out in the text. Part of the problem may well lay in the range of definitions which the trope might entail, going from being simply a description, a "very vivid description" (3), or "a passage of intensely descriptive writing that expressly calls on the reader's or listener's visual imagination and places an object, be it a work of visual art or not, directly before the mind's eye of the audience in order to trigger a particular series of reflections" (6). I agree with Brown that the latter is the kind of ekphrastic moment I would expect to act as a catalyst for thought-stirring philosophical imaginings but the following description of the magic belt, for instance, delineates the object and its magical properties but does not really trigger any further meditation or series of reflections, at least in this reviewer: "The queen has the belt, which was so fashioned that I can't tell you of what it was made. It was completely covered with jewels and gold. No other belt that one could wish for would be so fine. She decided to put it on, and at once the lady had joy and wisdom: not even the slightest sorrow troubled her, she knew all languages well, her heart was full of happiness, she was a master at whatever game one could think of, and she lacked no art or skill. It seemed to her that this stranger might well be a mighty king, and he seemed to her brave and gallant; it seemed this way because of the belt" (26-27).

The interplay between poetic and visual representation in two illuminated manuscripts (Leiden, Bibl. der Maatschappij der Nederlandsche Letterkunde no. 537 and [formerly] Karlsruhe, Badische Landesbibliothek, Codex Donaueschingen 71), in the sixteenth-century Strassburg printed Wigoleis from Rade and in the Wigalois cycle of frescoes at Runkelstein Castle is also explored. I found Brown's argument interesting in particular when he focuses on heraldic visualization as a form of ekphrastic emblematizing which recurs in the illuminations' subjects and structuring. The depiction of Gwigalois's and Roaz's heraldic crests (146) in the lower register of a miniature representing Japhite's tomb, for instance, contributes to emphasizing "the noble heathen Japhite's exemplary status and courtliness, and places these ideas directly before the reader's eyes" (147) even though the crests are not part of the poetic ekphrasis.

Albeit not always agreeing with James H. Brown's interpretation of ekphrastic moments in Wigalois, I must commend his efforts at bringing "before the eyes" rhetorical constructs and imaginings which are not often commented on or even discussed in romance literary criticism. They are nonetheless requisite tools to navigate the complexity of a text which is only apparently a simple and straightforward exposition of an "already perfect" (215) hero's adventures and may reveal instead unexpected visual turns.

Copyright (c) 2017 Laura Iseppi De Filippis

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