Ekphrasis

An Introduction to Ekphrasis

Ekphrasis (etymologically from the Greek ‘ek,’ “out” and ‘phrasein,’ literally “to speak”) broadly refers to a technique of verbal representation of visual art or the poetic description of pictorial or sculptural work of art.

The Latin handbook Rhetorica ad Herennium vividly describes ekphrasis as typically containing a clear, lucid and impressive exposition of the consequences of an act, as follows:

  • “But, men of the jury, if by your votes you free this defendant, immediately, released from his cage, or some foul beast loosed from his chains, he will slink and prowl about in the forum, sharpening his teeth to attack everyone’s property, assaulting everyman, friend and enemy, known to him or unknown, now despoiling a good name, now attacking a life, now bringing ruin upon a house and its entire household, shaking the republic from its foundations. Therefore, men of the jury, cast him out from the state, free everyone from fear, and finally, think of yourselves. For if you relaease this creature without punishment, believe me, gentlemen, it is against yourselves that you will have loose a wild and savage beast.”
    — (Cicero [1989:IV.xxxix.51])

Ekphrasis was an accepted rhetorical strategy in the fifth-century B.C.E. Through vivid verbal description, a rhetor could bring before the listener’s “mind’s eye” a vision of reality that validated his persuasive point and invited his listeners to participate interactively.

Ekphrasis is an important feature of literature and has its subjects like those of encomiumOpens in new window, such as persons, actions, times, places, animals, and almost any growing things of life. The description is completely vivid: of a person, for example, from head to toe; of actions, from start to result.

Many rhetors significantly include war, battle, and the construction of siege engines, ships, and weapons of war as suitable subject matter for an ekphrasis. Turning attention specifically to war, Aelius TheonOpens in new window in his observance offered thus, a model for this particular description:

  • “in an ekphrasis of war we shall first recount events before the war: the raising of armies, expenditures, fears, the countryside devastated, the sieges; then describe the wounds and the deaths and the grief, and in addition the capture and enslavement of some and the victory and trophies of the others.”

Classical Works featuring Ekphrasis

Various other examples of ekphrasis abounds in classical literatureOpens in new window, beginning with the description of the Shield of Achilles in the eighteenth book of the Iliad. Ekphrasis is also prominent in historical writing, but in oratory is confined to works given literary amplification, CiceroOpens in new window’s published speeches against VerresOpens in new window, for example.

The HomericOpens in new window model produced a series of descriptions of works of art in which the narrator expresses the emotions awakened on seeing a statue or painting. Perhaps the best examples from the time of the Roman EmpireOpens in new window are the Eikones by PhilostratusOpens in new window and his grandson of the same name.

Further Readings:
Silver Rhetoricae, Figures | EcphrasisOpens in new window
Aelius Theon, Spengel p. 118.cf.Hom.11.18.478 – 614;
Thuc.3.21, 4.100; Pseudo-Hermogenes 10.3; Aphthonius 12.2.