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Figure 8 Charity Overcoming Envy

A story is first “depicted in a tapestry”, then deciphered into an ekphrastic poem. When performed, the poem—the ekphrasis—can be said to evoke seeing through the medium of hearing. Obversely, the tapestry, in its turn, evokes a poetic voice through its visual images—that is, hearing is brought about through seeing. In other words the tapestry, in relationship to the text upon which it is based, functions as the reverse of a normative ekphrasis. If ekphrasis is a verbal or textual description of a real or imagined work of art, then the reverse of this is a work of art, such as a tapestry, that functions as a visual description of text.

According to the Burrell catalogue, the tapestry, Charity Overcoming Envy, is based on the Psychomachia by the Roman writer Prudentius. I suggest however that we look at it as a reverse ekphrasis of the text inscribed in the tapestry. The inscription reads (in Hollander’s translation): “The envious soul’s sorrow is at the prosperity of its neighbor; it rejoices at the evil befalling him, like the dog. But the elephant doesn’t know this. And charity smashes evil.”

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