Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.

The Renewal of Ekphrasis by John Skillen

The Renewal of Ekphrasis 

by John Skillen 

Ekphrasis is the ancient Greek term for poetry about artworks. Ekphrastic poetry turns out to be a vital current in the tradition of Western poetry, from Homer’s description of the marvelous Shield of Achilles in the Iliad, to a 20th-century poem such as W. H. Auden’s oft-anthologized “Museé des Beaux Art,” a reflection on Pieter Breughel’s painting depicting (almost unnoticed in the bottom corner) the Fall of Icarus. 

A creative writing course in Ekphrasis has been included in the curriculum of Gordon College’s arts-oriented program in OrvietoItaly every semester for over a decade. First designed by Gordon College’s poet in residence, Mark Stevick, our course has attracted teachers such as Paul Mariani (distinguished professor of poetry at Boston College), Scott Cairns (director of the doctoral program in creative writing at the University of Missouri), and Julia Spicher Kasdorf (director of the graduate program in creative writing at Penn State University). 

Our teachers hope to draw the students back into a conversation lively in the Italian Renaissance about the relation between poetry and the pictorial arts, between word and image. Taking up the classical dictum ut pictura poesis (as pictures work, so does poetry), the new humanists thought of poetry as a "speaking picture."  Dante’s phrase in the Purgatorio is visibile parlare, “speech made visible. Interest was reborn in the classical tradition of ekphrasis, including a sort of ekphrasis-in-reverse whereby artists created visual representations of verbal artworks or drew inspiration from verbal descriptions of lost artworks of the past.  In his influential book the Art of Painting (1435), the quintessential Renaissance man Leon Battista Alberti, for instance, cites Lucan’s ekphrastic description of a painting by Apelles (existing for Alberti’s generation only through its Roman description) on the subject of Calumny.  Alberti goes on to give his own lengthy ekphrasis of the painting, a description that is likely to have inspired Sandro Botticelli’s painting of the same storia (or thematically-dense narrative). 

Both directions from artwork to poem, and poem to artwork, find expression in the frescoes of Luca Signorelli in Orvieto's cathedral.  In the lower decorative zone of this vast programme of paintings concerning the Endtimes and Last Judgment, Signorelli depicts in reverse-ekphrasis episodes from the first eleven cantos of Dante’s Purgatorio, including the famous ekphrastic passage from canto 10.  There Dante describes the artwork of God Himself in carving in bas-relief on the very cliff-face of MountPurgatory three scenes of humility-in-action designed to serve as inspirational motivators for the cleansing work of the Prideful on this cornice of the mountain.  “I perceived [says the pilgrim Dante, describing the carved scene of the Annunciation and Mary’s humble acceptance of God’s will] that the encircling bank,” 

was of white marble carved with so much art
that Polycletus and Nature’s very self
would there be put to shame.

The angel who came to earth with the decree of peace

appeared before us so vividly engraved
in gracious attitude
it did not seem an image, carved and silent.

One would have sworn he said: ‘Ave,’
for she as well was pictured there
who turned the key to love on high.

And in her attitude imprinted were 
the words: ‘Ecce Ancilla Dei’ 
as clearly as a figure stamped in wax. [Jean and Robert Hollander translation]

I think that ekphrasis now has a new counter-cultural edginess in our own tradition-forgetful postmodern age because it forces upon writer and reader a provocative close encounter with the linkages which make a tradition.  To write an ode in praise of daffodils in the anti-tradition of Wordsworthian Romanticism can allow the poet to imagine that he is in raw unmediated communion with our natural environment, obscuring how our view of “nature” is itself always and already conditioned by cultural values mediated through art.  

How strange to hear that travelers journeying across the Alps in the 17th or 18th centuries pulled the curtains of their carriages shut to avoid looking at what the English essayist James Howell called “those uncouth huge monstrous excresences of nature.” But that’s because we are still heirs of the ensuing period of Romanticism, with biases of perception informed by poets such as Percy Bysshe Shelley.  For Shelley the monstrous Alps had become the “sublime” source of “the secret Strength of things / Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome / Of Heaven is as a law, Inhabits thee!” as he writes in “Mount Blanc”: 

So solemn, so serene, that man may be,
But for such faith, with nature reconciled;
Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.

Now we take glass-sided cable cars up mountains just to take in the awesome panoramas.  “Nature” is largely a function of “cultural” history. 

But to write a poem about a painting requires attention to cultural history and to things made through human artifice.  When, for example, Mark Stevick asks his students to write an ekphrastic poem about Signorelli’s paintings, they are not being asked to “deeply feel” raw nature.  They are adding their own voice to a centuries-long conversation, responding to frescoes painted in 1500 which themselves exist as reverse-ekphrasis about Dante’s ekphrasis written almost three centuries earlier.  Dante himself was converting to Christian faith a tropecommon among the Classical writers of praising excellent art for its ability to match, even over-match, nature. One can see how these sets of ekphrastic reversals locate the student in history, activating a neural network of cultural synapses that mark the vibrant presence of a tradition.  Such training provides a worthwhile corrective to the Romantic association of poetry with being in touch with nature, with all its introverted gaze and unabashed subjectivity. 

Many of our students register a growing weariness with the intolerable burden of always starting from scratch, and from the self, to achieve “originality.” They indicate increasing boredom with the narcissistic culture of Twittering, where we imagine that everyone else will or should be interested in reading a moment-by-moment account of our emotional condition.  We see a willingness to accept discipline and disciplinary tasks (“write a sonnet about this painting” rather than “express yourself in free verse”), to allow constructs seemingly imposed arbitrarily from without to order “the general mess of imprecision of feeling” and our “undisciplined squads of emotion” (as T. S. Eliot puts it in “East Coker”).  

I wonder if there’s some sort of an analogy with the emerging recovery of interest in liturgy – certainly among people from so-called non-liturgical traditions of Protestant Reform. 

The sequencing of time in the drama-like action of the liturgy, so un-natural in one sense, turns out not to disconnect us from the purely natural but to reconnect us with the “deep things” of human nature.  Consider, for instance, the artificial sequence in the Eucharistic liturgy of Confessing our sin, then Making Peace with our neighbor, and only then of bringing our gifts to the altar and receiving the sacrament of communion.  This sequence of actions sets up the possibility – so often resisted when left to our own narcissistic desires – of acknowledging that we have hurt someone, going to them to say sorry, feeling proper shame, hearing a word of forgiveness, and then going to the altar with the unbearable lightness of being a sinner forgiven and welcomed graciously to a feast.  That is, the “artificial” action prompts the feeling and response that ought to be “natural” but isn’t, until it is habituated into the genetics of the “new man.”  An artificiality grounded in the primordial turns out to re-connect us with the primordial.  Conversely, our so-called raw unmediated natural experience is itself (as the Freudians have taught us) largely a smokescreen, or a pastiche of the merely conventional.  We think our laughter at the unrelenting sexual innuendo of TV sit-coms like Friends or Sex in the City liberates us from Victorian prudishness and puts us in honest touch with our sexuality, whereas it simply sustains our self-deceptions. No one gets STD’s on situation comedies, despite the sleeping around. 

Scott Cairns’ poem “Swallows” catches all this up in distilled form: watching swallows behaving with raw natural spontaneity, hoping for a day when our own natural instincts would drive us to “honest hunger” for food that truly satisfies.  And all this swift flight occurs in and around the extravagant artificial space of the gothic pinnacles and the glittering mosaics and the bas-relief carvings on the Orvieto Duomo façade, with its depictions of Adam and Eve tempted and toiling, of Cain smashing his brother, of the un-hearing Balaam whipping his more attentive Ass, of Mary saying Yes to the Angel Gabriel, a “Be it unto me according to Thy word” manifesting itself in quickened immediacy and “pure pursuit.”

Orvieto: Duomo Swallows
(June 2007)

Of course they cannot mean to be
so beautiful. They mean only
to be fed, and so they fly,

and they engage their giddy
aerobatics overhead
with little thought, presumably,

to the wrought enormity
that works its Gothic ornament
well into their sheer domain,

and even less concern for how
they seem to those thus entertained
by their evening spectacular,

their patent skill and apt display
of how an honest hunger might
result in pure pursuit. I hope one day

to be so predisposed, to move
as quickly to what will quicken me—
with little thought, and beautifully.


John Skillen has taught courses in medieval and Renaissance culture at GordonCollege (Massachusetts) for over 25 years. For the last decade he has served as the inaugural director of GordonCollege's arts-oriented semester program in OrvietoItaly, where he also directs the Studio for Art, Faith & History, sponsoring conferences, exhibitions, and theatre events that address the relevance of pre-modern European culture for our postmodern context. 


- April 2024: Denise Levertov & Ernst Barlach
- January 2024: Wendell Berry and Carol Aust
- November 2023: Luci Shaw & Botticelli
- March 2023: Jill Baumgaertner & Liviu Mocan
- September 2022: The Uncompleted Man
- March 2022: Annukka Laine
- January 2022: Megan Fisher
- November 2021: Luci Shaw & Worku Goshu
- September 2021: Pádraig Ó Tuama & Leo G. Franchi
- May 2021: Malcolm Guite & Unknown
- January 2021: Emily Dickinson & Henri Matisse
- December 2020: Allan Boesak & Harm Visser
- June 2020: Luci Shaw & Sebastian Wien
- November 2019: Dennis O’Driscoll & David Robinson
- June 2019: C.S. Lewis & Wayne Adams
- May 2019: Malcolm Guite & Andrea Mantegna: Ascension
- May 2019: Denise Levertov & Ernst Barlach
- October 2018: Sándor Reményik & Ildikó Mecséri
- August 2018: Abigail Carroll & Caravaggio
- May 2018: Bohuslav Reynek: Poet and Visual Artist
- March 2018: George MacDonald & James Ensor
- January 2018: Wendell Berry & Annukka Laine
- November 2017: Mary Oliver & Pauline Baynes
- August 2017: Ellyn Maybe & Pablo Picasso
- April 2017: Lucy Shaw & Henry Ossawa Tanner
- April 2017: Denise Levertov & Diego Velazquez
- February 2017: David L. Hatton & David L. Hatton
- November 2016: Dennis ODriscoll & David Robinson
- June 2016: Luci Shaw & Marietha Smit
- April 2016: Robert Browning & Pauline Baynes
- March 2016: Wendell Berry & Carol Aust
- January 2016: Dante G. Rossetti & Dante G. Rossetti
- December 2015: Sufjan Stevens & Geertgen tot Sint Jans
- September 2015: Thomas Merton & Andre Racz
- June 2015: Frances Bellerby & Jeltje Hoogenkamp
- March 2015: Christine Perrin & Ted Prescott
- January 2015: Jan Krist & Gor Chahal
- December 2014: Sufjan Stevens & Geertgen tot Sint Jans
- November 2014: David L. Hatton & David L. Hatton
- July 2014: Chris Lorensson & Dylan Clements
- June 2014: Jonathan Evens & Henry Shelton
- April 2014: Gerlind Krause & Worku Goshu
- April 2014: Christine Perrin & Michelangelo
- February 2014: David Hatton & Angelo da Fonseca
- January 2014: James Weldon Johnson & Aaron Douglas
- January 2014: Hannah Main-van der Kamp & Liviu Mocan
- December 2013: Christine Perrin & Fra Angelico
- December 2013: Luci Shaw & Botticelli
- November 2013: Christine Perrin & Luca Signorelli
- October 2013: Hannah Main-van der Kamp & Tanja Butler
- October 2013: James Weldon Johnson & Aaron Douglas
- October 2013: Marilyn Chandler McEntyre & Johannes Vermeer