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The second section of this study centers on the second question, the poetics, or how does the tapestry tell its story and how does the viewer decode it.



As I mentioned in the introduction, many of our students initially expected to study tapestry as simply an exotic, large scale illustration of medieval texts. However, they discovered that the relationship was not that simple. I have chosen to create a system of poetics to describe this relationship as a “reverse ekphrasis,” or in other words, a visual narrative that invites decoding.

Ekphrasis is a Greek term for a particular exercise in verbal rhetoric described by Hermogenes of Tarsus in the second century as:

An account with detail: the style must contrive to bring about seeing through hearing.

This term was subsequently picked up by modern art historians and literary critics and can now be defined as “a verbal description of a work of art.” There are two varieties of normative ekphrasis: literal or actual ekphrasis and notional or imaginative ekphrasis. Literal ekphrasis denotes a description of an existing work of art, while notional ekphrasis is a description of a purely fictional (or lost) work of art. A well known example of notional ekphrasis is the description of Achilles’ shield in the Iliad, which is an elaborate account of an imaginary object. Another famous notional ekphrasis is the description of the tapestries woven in the competition between Pallas Athena and Arachne (who, of course, loses and is turned into a spider) in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. But whether the art is actual or imaginary, the ekphrasis is a written description intended to evoke a specific work of art.

Tapestries have often been the subject of ekphrases. A recent example, cited in John Hollander’s book, The Gazer’s Spirit,4 is an ekphrastic poem by the American poet Marianne Moore, written about a late fifteenth century iconographic tapestry in the Burrell collection in Glasgow and entitled Charity Overcoming Envy. [Illustration top of next page.]

Here is the first stanza of the poem:

Have you time for a story
(depicted in a tapestry?)
Charity riding on an elephant,
on a “mosaic of flowers,” faces Envy,
the flowers bunched together not rooted.
Envy, on a dog, is worn down by obsession,
His greed (since of things owned by others
He can only take some).5

4 John Hollander, The Gazer’s Spirit, (Chicago, 1995), University of Chicago Press.
5 Hollander, pp. 297-301.

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