- Michael Squire
Ekphrasis refers to the literary and rhetorical trope of summoning up—through words—an impression of a visual stimulus, object, or scene. As critical trope, the word ekphrasis (ἔκφρασις) is attested from the first century ce onwards: it is discussed in the Imperial Greek Progymnasmata, where it is defined as a “descriptive speech which brings the subject shown before the eyes with visual vividness.”
- Greek Literature
Updated in this version
Article expanded to include a detailed survey of “ekphrasis” in Greek literature. Bibliography updated to incorporate recent scholarship.
Ekphrasis refers to the literary and rhetorical trope of summoning up—through words—an impression of a visual stimulus, object, or scene. The concept has been fundamental to late 20th- and early 21st-century scholarship on the interface between visual and verbal media. At the same time, there has been much debate about the precise relationship between modern uses of the term—as developed above all in the study of comparative literature—and its precise semantic meanings in antiquity. Where modern critics have tended to describe ekphrasis as a “verbal representation of a literary representation,”1 or else as a “sought-for equivalent in words of any visual image,”2 some classical scholars have argued that “the ancient and modern categories of ekphrasis are … formed on entirely different grounds, and are entirely incommensurate, belonging as they do to radically different systems.”3
As a critical term, “ekphrasis” (ἔκφρασις) is attested from around the 1st century ce onwards. The word recurs in the context of the scholiasts’ commentaries—above all in relation to the Homeric poems.4 The most detailed ancient critical analyses, however, come in the context of the Imperial Greek Progymnasmata by Theon, Hermogenes, Aphthonius, and Nikolaus.5 Despite their differences in emphasis and explanatory gloss, the Progymasmata provide strikingly similar definitions. Theon’s explanation of ekphrasis as a “descriptive speech which brings the subject shown before the eyes with visual vividness”6 seems to have been echoed almost verbatim among other Progymnasmata authors. According to such definitions, ekphrasis is a special sort of “descriptive speech” (logos periēgēmatikos), and one that transforms the subject described from something figuratively “shown” (to dēloumenon) into a sort of literal apparition “before the eyes” (hyp’ opsin). Ekphrasis is recurrently defined around the enargeia (vividness) and saphēneia (clarity) of the associated rhetorical description. Ultimately, ekphrasis is premised on the promise of actually “seeing” the thing spoken about: “Ekphrasis is an interpretation that almost brings about seeing through hearing,” in the words of Hermogenes.7 The elements of ekphrasis, writes Nikolaus, “bring the subjects of the speech before our eyes and almost make speakers into spectators.”8
The discussions in the Progymnasmata intersect with other ancient rhetorical analyses (not least Quint., Inst. 6.2.29–30).9 When thinking about the relationship between ancient rhetorical analyses and modern critical interpretations of the trope, three aspects are particularly important. First, the Progymnasmata definitions of ekphrasis refer to something much broader in scope than the description of artworks alone.10 In contrast to most modern uses of the term, which define ekphrasis almost exclusively as a verbal mediation of a visual work of art, ancient rhetorical discussions were ultimately less interested in the subjects of ekphrasis than in its effects on the listening audience: this explains the diversity of different subjects that the Progymnasmata introduce, including ekphraseis of “deeds” (pragmata), “persons” (prosōpa), “places” (topoi), “times” (chronoi), “opportunities” (kairoi), “tropes” (tropoi), “speechless animals and plants” (aloga zōa kai … phyta), and “festivals” (panēgyreis). Among Progymnasmsta authors, Nikolaus (probably writing towards the end of the 5th century) is exceptional in mentioning descriptions of “statues, paintings and the like” under the heading of “ekphrasis.”11 Second, these ancient rhetorical definitions are evidently premised on a number of specific philosophical ideas. Especially significant is the language of enargeia (vividness), a word that stretches back to Plato and Aristotle, but which subsequently came to be associated with Stoic discussions of phantasia or “inner vision” (see stoicism):12 through the enargeia and saphēneia of a description, the Progymnasmata imply, a listener could seem to arrive at the same mental phantasia that a scene had originally brought to the “mind’s eye” of a speaker, writer, or indeed artist. Third, given the “relatively dry and matter-of-fact” approach of the Progymnasmata,13 it is worth emphasizing their insistence on ekphrasis as an art of semblance and make-believe. Authors of these treatises were well aware of the fictitiousness that underlies ekphrasis—as a trope of “almost [skhedon] seeing through hearing,” and indeed of “all but [mononou] making the audience into spectators”;14 much later, in his 9th-century commentary on Aphthonius’s Progymnasmata, John of Sardis would develop the point explicitly, writing that “even if the speech were ten thousand times vivid, it would be impossible to bring ‘the thing shown’ or ekphrasised itself before the eyes.”15
Despite their particular functions and pedagogical remits, the Progymnasmata clearly reflect—and indeed respond to—a much longer history of conceptualizing words and images, as played out in the literary evocation of artworks in particular. In theorizing ekphrasis around the poles of sight and sound, rhetorical handbooks continue a long-standing literary and literary critical tradition: one thinks in particular of Simonides’ famous aphorism—much quoted in antiquity—that “painting is silent poetry, poetry is talking painting.”16 Ultimately, this history stretches back to the Homeric epic description of the shield of Achilles (Il. 18.478–608),17 in turn giving rise to all manner of epic imitations—from Pseudo-Hesiod’s 6th-century Shield of Heracles (Sc. 139–320), Apollonius’s evocation of Jason’s cloak (Arg. 1.730–767), and not least Vergil’s description of Aeneas’s shield (Aen. 8.626–728);18 the Homeric description also posed a challenge to visual artists, who sometimes delighted in turning the Homeric verbal evocation of a visual object back into material apparition (see Figure 1).19
Epic poetry was not the only genre to appropriate or allude to the shield of Achilles.20 By introducing the Homeric epic prototype within non-epic contexts, authors could exploit that poetic paradigm to probe not only the relations between visual imagery and verbal description but also their own generic relations to a Greek literary canon.21
Ekphrasis proves a crucial trope in prose texts too. Sometimes the conventions of ekphrastic evocation are lampooned—nowhere more strikingly than with Petronius’s account of the exploits of Eumolpus in an imagined art gallery (Sat. 83–90).22 Throughout, the evocation of visual response could likewise spur self-conscious reflection about readerly responses to the text at hand: particularly revealing here is the use of ekphrasis in “Second Sophistic” novels, not least the opening evocations of paintings in Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe and Achilles Tatius’s Leukippe and Clitophon.23 Later, above all from the 2nd century onwards, whole works were structured around the idea of verbally responding to—and in turn summoning up—“images” of visual stimuli: in addition to two works by Lucian (as well as several others dedicated to the description and interpretation of artworks), Eikones was the title of two original and highly influential works by Philostratus (see philostrati); Callistratus also seems to have used Ekphraseis as a title of a work describing a collection of statues.24
Latin authors were no less interested in the intersection between visual and verbal modes. Among the most fascinating—and understudied—examples come from the early 4th century ce in the picture-poems of Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius. Optatian at once imitated and transformed earlier Hellenistic traditions of picture-poetry (see technopaignia), rendering his poems literal pictures, and his pictures lettered poems (see Figure 2).25
- Squire, M. J. “Ecphrasis: Visual and Verbal Interactions in Ancient Greek and Latin Literature.” Oxford Handbooks Online in Classical Studies.
- Squire, M. J., and Federica Pich. “Reading as Seeing: A Conversation on Ancient and Modern Intermedialities.” Arabeschi 8 (2016).
- Becker, A. S.The Shield of Achilles and the Poetics of Ekphrasis. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995.
- Benediktson, D. T.Literature and the Visual Arts in Ancient Greece and Rome. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.
- Boeder, M.Visa est Vox: Sprache und Bild in der spätantiken Literatur. Frankfurt: Lang, 1996.
- Boehm, G., and H. Pfotenhauer, eds. Beschreibungskunst—Kunstbeschreibung: Ekphrasis von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. Munich: Fink, 1995.
- Brassat, W., and M. J. Squire. “Die Gattung der Ekphrasis.” In Handbuch Rhetorik der Bildenden Kunste. Edited by W. Brassat, 63–87. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017.
- Chinn, C. “Before Your Very Eyes: Pliny Epistulae 5.6 and the Ancient Theory of Ekphrasis.” Classical Philology 102 (2007): 265–80.
- Cistaro, M.Sotto il velo di Pantea: Imagines e Pro Imaginibus di Luciano. Messina, Italy: Dipartimento di scienze dell’antichità, 2009.
- Dufallo, B.The Captor’s Image: Greek Culture in Roman Ecphrasis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
- Elsner, J. “Introduction: The Genres of Ekphrasis.” Ramus 31 (2002): 1–18.
- Elsner, J. “Seeing and Saying: A Psychoanalytical Account of Ekphrasis.” Helios 31 (2004): 157–186.
- Friedländer, P.Johannes von Gaza und Paulus Silentarius: Kunstbeschreibungen Justinianischer Zeit. Leipzig: Teubner, 1912.
- Goldhill, S. “The Naïve and Knowing Eye: Ecphrasis and the Culture of Viewing in the Hellenistic World.” In Art and Text in Ancient Greek Culture. Edited by S. Goldhill and R. Osborne, 197–223. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
- Goldhill, S. “What is Ekphrasis For?” Classical Philology 102 (2007): 1–19.
- Gutzwiller, K. J. “Art’s Echo: The Tradition of Hellenistic Ecphrastic Epigram.” In Hellenistic Epigrams. Edited by M. A. Harder, R. Regtuit and G. W. Wakker, 85–112. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2002.
- Heffernan, J.The Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashberry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
- Heffernan, J. “Speaking for Pictures: The Rhetoric of Art Criticism.” Word and Image 15.1 (1999): 19–33.
- Männlein-Robert, I.Stimme, Schrift und Bild: Zum Verhältnis der Künste in der hellenistischen Dichtung. Heidelberg: Winter, 2007.
- Squire, M. J.Image and Text in Graeco-Roman Antiquity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
- Squire, M. J. “Reading a View: Poem and Picture in the Greek Anthology.” Ramus 39 (2010): 73–103.
- Squire, M. J. “Ekphrasis at the Forge and the Forging of Ekphrasis: The Shield of Achilles in Graeco-Roman Word and Image.” Word and Image 29.2 (2013): 157–191.
- Webb, R.Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Practice and Theory. Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2009.
- Zeitlin, F. “Figure: Ekphrasis.” Greece and Rome 60.1 (2013): 17–31.
1. J. Heffernan, The Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashberry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 3.
2. M. Krieger, Ekphrasis: The Illusion of the Natural Sign (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 9.
3. R. Webb, Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Practice and Theory (Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2009), 7–8; cf. R. Webb, “Ekphrasis Ancient and Modern: The Invention of a Genre,” Word & Image 15.1 (1999): 7–18; G. Zanker, Modes of Viewing in Hellenistic Poetry and Art (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), 82–84, 184–185, n. 26. For a different viewpoint, see J. Elsner, “Introduction: The Genres of Ekphrasis,” Ramus 31 (2002): 1–18, at 2; M. J. Squire (2009) Aestimatio 5: 233–244.
4. Cf. G. M. Rispoli, “φαντασία ed ἐνάργεια negli scolî all’Iliade,” Vichiana 13 (1984): 311–339; R. Meijering, Literary and Rhetorical Theories in Greek Scholia (Groningen, Germany: Egbert Forsten, 1987), esp. 29–52; A. Manieri, L’immagine poetica nella teoria degli antichi (Pisa: Istituti editoriali e poligrafici internazionali, 1998), esp. 179–192; R. Nünlist, The Ancient Critic at Work: Terms and Concepts of Literary Criticism in Greek Scholia (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009), esp. 153–155, 194–198; and M. J. Squire and J. Elsner, “Homer and the Ekphrasists: Text and Picture in the Elder Philostratus’ Scamander (Imagines I.1),” in The Archaeology of Greece and Rome: Studies in Honour of Anthony Snodgrass, eds. J. Bintliff and K. Rutter (Edinburgh, U.K.: Edinburgh University Press), 57–99.
5. For an anthology of passages in Greek and English translation, see R. Webb, Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion, 197–211. The passages themselves can be found in M. Patillon and G. Bolognesi, eds., Aelius Théon, Progymnasmata (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1997), 66–69; H. Rabe, ed., Hermogenis Opera (Leipzig: Teubner, 1913), 22–23; H. Rabe, ed., Aphthonius Progymnasmata (Leipzig: Teubner, 1926), 36–41; and J. Felten, ed., Nicolaus Progymnasmata (Leipzig: Teubner, 1913), 67–71.
6. Prog. 118.7 = Patillon and Bolognesi, Aelius Théon, Progymnasmata, 66.
7. Prog. 10.48 = Rabe, Hermogenis Opera, 23.
8. Felten, Nicolaus Progymnasmata, 70.
9. Cf. Webb, Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion, esp. 93–96, along more generally with I. Henderson, “Quintilian and the Progymnasmata,” Antike und Abendland 37 (1991): 82–99.
10. For a recent championing of the point, see Webb, Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion, 61–86.
11. = Felten, Nicolaus Progymnasmata, 69.
12. For discussions, see G. Zanker, “Enargeia in the Ancient Criticism of Poetry,” Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 124 (1981): 297–311; S. Dubel, “Ekphrasis et enargeia: la déscription antique comme parcours,” in Dire l’évidence: philosophie et rhétorique antiques, eds. C. Lévy and L. Pernot (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1997), 249–264; A. Manieri, L’immagine poetica, esp. 179–192; I. Männlein-Robert, “Zum Bild des Phidias in der Antike: Konzepte zur Kreativität des bildenden Künstlers,” in Imagination—Fiktion—Kreation: Das kulturschaffende Vermögen der Phantasie, eds. T. Dewender and T. Welt (Munich: Saur, 2003), 45–67; S. Bartsch, “Wait a Moment, phantasia: Ekphrastic Interference in Seneca and Epictetus,” Classical Philology 102 (2007): 83–95; and Webb, Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion, 87–130.
13. S. Bartsch, Decoding the Ancient Novel: The Reader and the Role of Description in Heliodorus and Achilles Tatius (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 9.
14. Hermogenes 10.48 (=Rabe, Hermogenis Opera, 23); Nikolaus (=Felten, Nicolaus Progymnasmata, 70). In the words of Simon Goldhill, “rhetorical theory knows well that its descriptive power is a technique of illusion, semblance, and of making to appear.” S. Goldhill, “What Is Ekphrasis for?,” Classical Philology 102 (2007): 1–19, at 3; cf. A. S. Becker, The Shield of Achilles and the Poetics of Ekphrasis (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995), 28.
15. = H. Rabe, ed., Ioannis Sardiani Commentarium in Aphthonii Progymnasmata (Leipzig: Teubner, 1928), 216.
16. Simon frg. 190b Bergk (= Plut. Mor. [De Glor. Ath.] 346f). For discussion, see A. Carson, “Simonides Painter,” in Innovations of Antiquity, eds. R. Hexter and D. Seldon (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), 51–64; G. K. Sprigath, “Das Dictum des Simonides: Der Vergleich von Dichtung und Malerei,” Poetica. tters of a Greek elegic couplet. Typesetting by Aaron Pelttari, Michael Squire and Johannes Wienand, g, ancient mosaics and th 36 (2004): 243–280. On the subsequent reception of the sentiment—not least through the lens of Horace’s famous dictum, ut pictura poesis (“as is painting, so is poetry”: Ars P. 361), see P. Hardie, “Ut pictura poesis? Horace and the Visual Arts,” in Horace 2000: A Celebration. Essays for the Bimillennium, ed. N. Rudd (London: Duckworth, 1993), 120–139; and L. Barkan, Mute Poetry, Speaking Pictures (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).
17. For detailed further bibliography, see M. J. Squire, “Ekphrasis at the Forge and the Forging of Ekphrasis: The Shield of Achilles in Graeco-Roman Word and Image,” Word & Image 29 (2013): 157–191, at 183, n. 1. Important discussions include M. Lynn-George, Epos: Word, Narrative and the Iliad (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988), 174–200; A. S. Becker, The Shield of Achilles and the Poetics of Ekphrasis (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995); J. A Francis, “Metal Maidens, Achilles’ Shield and Pandora: The Beginnings of ‘Ekphrasis,’” American Journal of Philology 130 (2009): 1–23; M. Lecoq, Le bouclier d’Achille: un tableau qui borge (Paris: Gallimard, 2010); and M. d’Acunto and R. Palmisciano, eds., Lo scudo di Achille nell’Iliade. Esperienze ermeneutiche a confronto (Pisa: Serra, 2010).
18. For a list of Greek and Latin literary shield descriptions specifically, see K. Fittschen, “Der Schild des Achilleus,” in Archaeologia Homerica 2: N.1.1–28, at 1, n. 1. On Pseudo-Hesiod, see A. S. Becker, The Shield of Achilles and the Poetics of Ekphrasis, 23–40, along with the more detailed recent discussion of S. Chiarini, L’archeologia dello Scutum Herculis (Rome: Aracne, 2012), esp. 15–24. On Apollonius, see R. Hunter, The Argonautica of Apollonius: Literary Studies (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 52–59; and J. J. Clauss, The Best of the Argonauts: The Redefinition of the Epic Hero in Book One of Apollonius’ Argonautica (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 120–129. On Virgil, the most important discussion remains P. Hardie, Virgil’s Aeneid: Cosmos and Imperium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 336–376; cf. M. Putnam, Virgil’s Epic Designs: Ekphrasis in the Aeneid (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 119–188; M. J. Squire (2014), “The ordo of Rhetoric and the Rhetoric of Order,” in Art and Rhetoric in Roman Culture, eds. M. Meyer and J. Elsner (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press), 353–417, at 386–401 (with more detailed bibliography).
19. For more detailed discussion, cf. M. J. Squire, The Iliad in a Nutshell: Vizualizing Epic on the Tabulae Iliacae (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), esp. 303–370.
20. A famous Hellenistic example comes in the ouevre of Theocritus. In the first Idyll (vv. 26–60), Homer’s instrument of epic warfare is transformed into a delicate wooden drinking-cup—its scenes carefully crafted after Homer, while indirectly figuring the proximity and distance between Homeric epic and the Theocritean bucolic world. Cf. (inter alios) D. M. Halperin, Before Pastoral: Theocritus and the Ancient Tradition of Bucolic Poetry (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), 176–183; S. Goldhill, The Poet’s Voice: Essays on Poetics and Greek Literature (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press), 240–246; F. Manakidou, Beschreibung von Kunstwerken in der hellenistischen Dichtung: Ein Beitrag zur hellenistischen Poetik (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1993), 51–101; R. Hunter, Theocritus and the Archaeology of Greek Poetry (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 43–44; I. Männlein-Robert, Stimme, Schrift und Bild: Zum Verhältnis der Künste in der hellenistischen Dichtung (Heidelberg, Germany: Winter, 2007), 303–307.
21. As a purported inscribed response to a visual artwork, epigram provided a particularly important medium for exploring the intersection between visual and verbal responses: cf. K. J. Gutzwiller, “Art’s Echo: The Tradition of Hellenistic Ecphrastic Epigram,” in Hellenistic Epigrams, eds. M. A. Harder, R. Regtuit and G. W. Wakker (Leuven: Peeters, 2002), 85–112; and M. J. Squire, “Making Myron’s Cow Moo? Ecphrastic Epigram and the Poetics of Simulation,” American Journal of Philology 131.4 (2010): 589–634.
22. Cf. N. W. Slater, “Against Interpretation: Petronius and Art Criticism,” Ramus 16 (1987): 165–176; B. Dufallo, “Ecphrasis and Cultural Identification in Petronius’ Art Gallery,” Word and Image 23 (2007): 290–304; J. Elsner, Roman Eyes: Visuality and Subjectivity in Art and Text (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), 177–199; T. Baier, “Eumolpe et Encolpe dans une galerie d’art,” in Métamorphoses du regard ancien, eds. É. Prioux and A. Rouveret (Paris: Presses Universitaires de Paris Ouest, 2010), 191–204.
23. Cf. R. Hunter, A Study of Daphnis and Chloe (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 38–52; T. Whitmarsh, “Written on the Body: Ekphrasis, Perception and Deception in Heliodorus’ Aethiopica,” Ramus 31 (2002): 111–125; H. Morales, Vision and Narrative in Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004), esp. 36–95; and R. Webb, Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion, 178–185.
24. Cf. S. Goldhill, “Viewing and the Viewer: Empire and the Culture of the Spectacle,” in The Body Aesthetic: From Fine Art to Body Modification, ed. T. Siebers (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), 41–74; Z. Newby, “Testing the Boundaries of Ekphrasis: Lucian On the Hall,” Ramus 31 (2002): 126–135; M. Costantini, F. Graziani, and S. Rolet, eds., Le défi de l’art: Philostrate, Callistrate et l’image sophistique (Paris: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2006); M. Cistaro, Sotto il velo di Pantea: Imagines e Pro Imaginibus di Luciano (Messina: Dipartimento di scienze dell’antichità, 2009); and M. J. Squire, “Apparitions Apparent: The Parameters of Vision in Philostratus the Elder’s Imagines,” Helios 39 (2013): 97–140. The Elder Philostratus’s Eikones (often referred to by its Latin title, Imagines) was explicitly referred to as “an ekphrasis of works of painting/description” (τις γραφικῆς ἔργων ἔκφρασις) by the Younger Philostratus, in the preface to his Eikones (Praef. 1); both the Elder and Younger Philostratus play knowingly on the rhetorical definitions of ekphrasis in the Progymnasmata (cf. Squire, “Apparitions Apparent,” 99–101, 107–108).
25. Cf. M. J. Squire, “POP Art: The Optical Poetics of Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius,” in Towards a Poetics of Late Latin Literature, eds. J. Elsner and J. Hernández Lobato (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 25–99; M. J. Squire and J. Wienand, eds., Morphogrammata / The Lettered Art of Optatian: Figuring Cultural Transformation in the Age of Constantine (Paderborn: W. Fink, 2017).