“Ekphrasis” o “ephrasis” is a Greek word ἔκφρασις (ek and phrasis, ‘out’ and ‘to talk’), (from the verb ἐκφράζο, ekphraso, from ek, out, and phraso, to explain with signs and words) that therefore means “exhibition in detail, explanation, description from outside or from the beginning or till the end,” to make intelligible, discover, uncover, …. It is a vivid description placing the object or event before the eyes.

The term designates in Antiquity a rhetoric figure of speech. For example, Hermogenes of Tarsus (h 160 -.. 225 h) defines it in his Ecphrasis Progymnasmata as "the extensive, detailed, vivid description, which places the object before the eyes."

In the ancient world the word ekphrasis means any vivid description, full of energeia, energy, of strength, of artworks, objects, landscapes and people which  places them with words before the eyes of the listener or the reader.

Over time this general sense was limited to verbal representation of a plastic object, usually a painting or sculpture, because it would be more frequent in rhetorical exercises. That is the literary description of a work of art.

Philostratus Lemnius was precisely who helped to fix this more restricted sense of this term at the beginning of his work in the second century,  in Imagines I, 1:

Whosoever scorns painting is unjust to truth ; and he is also unjust to all the wisdom that has been bestowed upon poets — for poets and painters make equal contribution to our knowledge of the deeds and the looks of heroes — and he withholds his praise from symmetry of proportion, whereby art partakes of reason. (Translation by Arthur Fairbanks.
London: William Heineman Ltd. New York.G.P.Putman’s sons. MCMXXXI)

This is the sense that has prevailed modern. Thus Umberto Eco (2003: 110): "When a verbal text describes a visual artwork, the classical tradition speaks of ekphrasis".

Or Leo Spitzer, "the poetic description of a pictorial or sculptural work of art" (1962, 72);

or James Heffernan: "the verbal representation of a visual representation" (1993, 3)

or Clüver Claus: "the verbal representation of a real or fictional text set in a nonverbal sign system" (1994, 26).

It is therefore a detailed description, from the beginning, which is what the word "de- scribere means: writing, from the beginning); and it is also a re-presentation or  second presentation because it represents another object, the painting, which is also the first representation of the object.

Note: progymnasmata (from pro and gymnasmata) designates the previous exercises in which the students of rhetoric were able to use the topoi or loci commonplace in speeches.

As long as it is an emotional, vivid, lifelike, animated description,it coincides with the meaning of hypotyposis (Greek: úποτúπωσις, sketch, to place a sketch before the eyes of someone), or especially emotional story to excite the imagination of listening public. Some more nuanced, in the sense that in the hypotyposis it leaves  from a text and goes to the image and in  the ekphrasis, by contrast, it leaves from the picture and goes to the text. Actually, the nuances are many, because there it is not an exact definition of the terms. Curiously, the Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy does not adopt the term ekphrasis and instead it collects “hypotyposis”, that is defined as: From Greek  Ὑποτύπωσις.  Quick and powerful description of someone or something through language. The Webster's 1913 Dictionary defines it: (Rhet.) A vivid, picturesque description of scenes or events.

Note: the “portrait” is the description of the physical appearance and spiritual characteristics of a person; prosopography is the portrait of physical ant ethopoeia  is the portrait of  the interior.  Topography is the description of the land .. Other more specialized terms like topofesía and pragmatography  exceed the interest of this article.

Theorizing about ekphrasis is part of the extensive theorizing about the relationship between the arts together and especially painting and literature, parallel and complementary arts: the visual arts are part of the static space and the verbal arts are developed in the time: painting tries to break the statism, the immobility, the poetry seeks the materiality of the space.

It is attributed to Simonides (c. 556 BC-c. 468 BC) to have  raised the relationship between art and literature in accordance with the sentence "Painting is silent poetry and painting is verbal poetry", which was so successful later.

So in écfrasis the literary expression, which is capable of expressing the movement and the  time, imitates the stillness of the painting; the painting in turn often aspires, being static, to express the movement and time.

Is worth a picture more than a thousand words? Perhaps it is in some cases, but the words can  made to see something exciting the imagination and using metaphors. It is possible to give voice to the image.

Today the discussion is extended to the relationship between the verbal and the visual in the new digital context and textual video products support a wide variety of formats.

Plato referred to these issues when he comes to try about the beauty and mimesis or imitation. Mimesis is representation,  interpretation and recreation.

About the ,imitation  Aristotle says in his Poetics, 1448 b,

From childhood men have an instinct for representation, and in this respect, differs from the other animals that he is far more imitative and learns his first lessons by representing things. (translated by W.H. Fyfe. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1932.)

In this regard in relation to mimesis, the ekphrasis is representation but also interpretation and recreation, because naturally, the poet gives us his vision and interpretacón of the visual work. Even the poet can create the visual object, nonexistent before their description, as it is the case in  the description of the shield of Achilles, that I reproduce below.

Plato says, linking poetry with painting, in Republic, X, 601a:

“Certainly.” “And similarly, I suppose, we shall say that the poet himself, knowing nothing but how to imitate, lays on with words and phrases the colors of the several arts in such fashion that others equally ignorant, who see things only through words, will deem his words most excellent, (Translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.)

And Aristotle in his Poetics, 1460b:

Since the poet represents life, as a painter does or any other maker of likenesses, he must always represent one of three things—either things as they were or are; or things as they are said and seem to be; or things as they should be. (translated by W.H. Fyfe. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1932.

The phrase which summarizes sententiously the subject matter is the famous sentence of Horace  "Ut Pictura Poesis", “Poetry is like painting”, in his  Epistula ad Pisones, v. 361

Just he started this work (Epistula ad Pisones) on literary prescriptive with the comparison of the poetry to the painting: (v 1-10.)

If a painter should wish to unite a horse's neck to a human head, and spread a variety of plumage over limbs [of different animals] taken from every part [of nature], so that what is a beautiful woman in the upper part terminates unsightly in an ugly fish below; could you, my friends, refrain from laughter, were you admitted to such a sight Believe, ye Pisos, the book will be perfectly like such a picture, the ideas of which, like a sick man's dreams, are all vain and fictitious: so that neither head nor foot can correspond to any one form. "Poets and painters [you will say] have ever had equal authority for attempting any thing."  (C. Smart. Theodore Alois Buckley. New York. Harper & Brothers. 1863.)

Humano capiti cervicem pictor equinam
iungere si velit et varias inducere plumas,
undique collatis membris, ut turpiter atrum
desinat in piscem mulier Formosa superne:
spectatum admissi risum teneatis, amici?
Credite, Pisones, isti tabulae fore librum
persimilem, cuis, velut aegri somnia, vanae
fingentur species, ut nec pes nec caput uni
reddatur formae. Pictoribus atque poetis
quidlibet audendi simper fuit aequa potestas.

The ekphrasis or vivid and detailed description of a work precisely interrelates the two arts and and provides liaison between the verbal and the visual.

Ovid is the poet who very often and in detail describes pictures and at turn he generated pictorial works over all time. The museums are riddled with  paintings that recreate some of the myths and mythological characters described by Ovid.

Ovid indeed in this context of relationship between the textual and the visual and art and imitation, mimesis and reproduction of reality,  had said in Metamorphoses, III, 155

The vale Gargaphia stretch’d along the glade,
Hid from the sun,and thick with Cypress shade,
Sacred to Dian: … in its deepest part,
Ingenious Nature, imitating art,
Had form’d a sylvan grot with moss o’ergrown,
Arch’d in a bow, and bright with spars and stone;

(Translated by Thomas Orger. London, 1814)

Vallis erat piceis et acuta densa cupressu,
nomine Gargaphie, succintae sacra Dianae,
cuius in extremo est antrum nemorale recessu
arte laboratum nulla; simulaverat artem
ingenio natura suo; nam pumice vivo
et levibus tofis nativum duxerat arcum.

Centuries later Oscar Wilde made the statement “Life imitates art far more than arts imitates life” in The Decay of Lying. 

There are numerous examples of authors on every language.  Probably the most famous in Antiquity is the famous description in the  XVIII book of Iliad of the shield of Achilles manufactured by Hephaestus. His influence has been enormous in all poetry, especially in the epic. Despite its size, I reproduce the fragment at the end of this article.

I will give other examples:

The vision of a painting that a certain Zoilus has in the dining room of his home in Trier is what causes the famous poem in 103 hexameters of Ausonius (310-395) entitled "Cupid tortured" (Cupidus cruciatus) in which he describes how some women are crucifying Cupid, the god of love.

The poem, in which Ausonius sends greetings to his son Gregorius begins:

Cupid crucified. 1,1-7) 

Ausonius to his son Gregorius, Greeting

" Pray, have you ever seen a picture painted on a wall ? " To be sure you have, and remember it. Well, at Treves, in the dining-room of Zoilus, this picture is painted : Cupid is being nailed to the cross by certain lovelorn women not those lovers of our own day, who fall into sin of their own freewill, but those heroic lovers who excuse themselves and blame the gods. Some of these our own Virgil recounts in his description of the Fields of Mourning. I was greatly struck by the art and the subject of this picture. Subsequently I translated my amazed admiration into insipid versification… (Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn White, M.A. The Loeb Classical Library)

En umquam vidisti tabulam pictam in pariete? vidisti utique et meministi. Treveris quippe in triclinio Zoili fucata est pictura haec: Cupidinem cruci adfigunt mulieres amatrices, non istae de nostro saeculo, quae sponte peccant, sed illae heroicae, quae sibi ignoscunt et plectunt deum. quarum partem in lugentibus campis Maro noster enumerat. hanc ego imaginem specie et argumento miratus sum. Deinde mirandi stuporem transtuli ad ineptiam poetandi.

The poem follows them.

See now:



Another example. The Christian poet Prudentius, (348 AD -.. C 410), from Calahorra, use this figure in several of his poems in which he sings the deaths of some martyrs. I reproduce two texts also concerned to the poems IX about Cassianus and XI about on Hippolitus. In both cases narrates the ordeal describing the paintings illustrating the graves of martyrs.

Passage of Prudentius, IX, on the martyrdom of Cassianus, v. 7-20 

…and while in tears I was thinking of my sins and all my life's distresses and stinging pains, I lifted my face towards heaven, and there stood confronting me a picture of the martyr painted in colours, bearing a thousand wounds, all his parts torn, and showing his skin broken with tiny pricks. Countless boys round about (a pitiful sight !) were stabbing and piercing his body with the little styles " with which they used to run over their wax tablets, writing down the droning lesson in school.

I appealed to the verger and he said : " What you are looking at, stranger, is no vain old wife's tale. The picture tells the story of what happened ; it is recorded in books and displays the honest assurance of the olden time.   (Translation BY H. J. THOMSON)

dum lacrimans mecum reputo mea vulnera et omnes
vitae labores ac dolorum acumina,
erexi ad caelum faciem, stetit obvia contra
fucis colorum picta imago martyris
plagas mille gerens, totos lacerata per artus,
ruptam minutis praeferens punctis cutem,
innumeri circum pueri, miserabile visu,
confossa parvis membra figebant stilis,
unde pugillares soliti percurrere ceras
scholare murmur adnotantes scripserant.
aedituus consultus ait: ‘quod prospicis, hospes,
non est inanis aut anilis fabula;
historiam pictura refert, quae tradita libris
veram vetusti temporis monstrat fidem.

And at the end of the poem, verses 93-94,he abstracts:

" This, stranger, is the story you wonder to see represented in liquid colours, this is the glory of Cassian"

haec sunt, quae liquidis expressa coloribus, hospes, 
miraris, ista est Cassiani gloria

Passage of the poem XI of Prudentius on Hippolytus, verses 123-152:

There is a picture of the outrage painted on a wall,
showing in many colours the wicked deed in all its
details ; above the tomb is depicted a lively likeness,
portraying in clear semblance Hippolytus' bleeding
body as he was dragged along. I saw the tips of
rocks dripping, most excellent Father, and scarlet
stains imprinted on the briers, where a hand that
was skilled in portraying green bushes had also
figured the red blood in vermilion. One could see
the parts torn asunder and lying scattered in dis-
order up and down at random. The artist had
painted too his loving people walking after him in
tears wherever the inconstant track showed his zig-
zag course. Stunned with grief, they were searching
with their eyes as they went, and gathering the
mangled flesh in their bosoms. One clasps the snowy
head, cherishing the venerable white hair on his
loving breast, while another picks up the shoulders,
the severed hands, arms, elbows, knees, bare frag-
ments of legs. With their garments also they wipe
dry the soaking sand, so that no drop shall remain to
dye the dust; and wherever blood adheres to the
spikes on which its warm spray fell, they press a
sponge on it and carry it all away.

Now the thick wood held no longer any part of
the sacred body, nor cheated it of a full burial. The
parts were reviewed and found to make the number
belonging to the unmutilated body ; the pathless
ground being cleared, and the boughs and rocks
wiped dry, had nothing of the whole man still to
give up ; and now a site was chosen on which to set a
tomb. They left the river-mouth," for Rome found
favour with them as the place to keep the holy


Exemplar sceleris paries habet illitus, in quo
multicolor fucus digerit omne nefas ;
picta super tumulum species liquidis uiget umbris,
effigians tracti membra cruenta uiri.
Rorantes saxorum apices uidi, optime papa,
purpureasque notas uepribus impositas.
Docta manus uirides imitando effingere dumos
luserat et minio russeolam saniem.
Cernere erat, ruptis compagibus, ordine nullo,
membra per incertos sparsa iacere situs.
Addiderat caros gressu lacrimisque sequentes,
deuia quo fractum semita monstrat iter.
Mærore adtoniti atque oculis rimantibus ibant
implebantque sinus uisceribus laceris.
Ille caput niueum complectitur ac reuerendam
canitiem molli confouet in gremio ;
hic humeros truncasque manus et brachia et ulnas
et genua et crurum fragmina nuda legit.
Palliolis etiam bibulæ siccantur harenæ,
ne quis in infecto puluere ros maneat.
Si quis et in sudibus recalenti aspergine sanguis
insidet, hunc omnem spongia pressa rapit.
Nec iam densa sacro quidquam de corpore silua
obtinet aut plenis fraudat ab exsequiis.
Cumque recensitis constaret partibus ille
corporis integri qui fuerat numerus,
nec purgata aliquid deberent auia, toto
ex homine extersis frondibus et scopulis,
metando eligitur tumulo locus, ostia linquunt,
Roma placet, sanctos quæ teneat cineres.

Iliad, book XVIII, v. 478 y ss.

First he shaped the shield so great and strong, adorning it all over and binding it round with a gleaming circuit in three layers; and the baldric was made of silver. He made the shield in five thicknesses, and with many a wonder did his cunning hand enrich it.
He wrought the earth, the heavens, and the sea; the moon also at her full and the untiring sun, with all the signs that glorify the face of heaven- the Pleiads, the Hyads, huge Orion, and the Bear, which men also call the Wain and which turns round ever in one place, facing. Orion, and alone never dips into the stream of Oceanus.

He wrought also two cities, fair to see and busy with the hum of men. In the one were weddings and wedding-feasts, and they were going about the city with brides whom they were escorting by torchlight from their chambers. Loud rose the cry of Hymen, and the youths danced to the music of flute and lyre, while the women stood each at her house door to see them.

Meanwhile the people were gathered in assembly, for there was a quarrel, and two men were wrangling about the blood-money for a man who had been killed, the one saying before the people that he had paid damages in full, and the other that he had not been paid. Each was trying to make his own case good, and the people took sides, each man backing the side that he had taken; but the heralds kept them back, and the elders sate on their seats of stone in a solemn circle, holding the staves which the heralds had put into their hands. Then they rose and each in his turn gave judgement, and there were two talents laid down, to be given to him whose judgement should be deemed the fairest.
About the other city there lay encamped two hosts in gleaming armour, and they were divided whether to sack it, or to spare it and accept the half of what it contained. But the men of the city would not yet consent, and armed themselves for a surprise; their wives and little children kept guard upon the walls, and with them were the men who were past fighting through age; but the others sallied forth with Mars and Pallas Minerva at their head- both of them wrought in gold and clad in golden raiment, great and fair with their armour as befitting gods, while they that followed were smaller. When they reached the place where they would lay their ambush, it was on a riverbed to which live stock of all kinds would come from far and near to water; here, then, they lay concealed, clad in full armour. Some way off them there were two scouts who were on the look-out for the coming of sheep or cattle, which presently came, followed by two shepherds who were playing on their pipes, and had not so much as a thought of danger. When those who were in ambush saw this, they cut off the flocks and herds and killed the shepherds. Meanwhile the besiegers, when they heard much noise among the cattle as they sat in council, sprang to their horses, and made with all speed towards them; when they reached them they set battle in array by the banks of the river, and the hosts aimed their bronze-shod spears at one another. With them were Strife and Riot, and fell Fate who was dragging three men after her, one with a fresh wound, and the other unwounded, while the third was dead, and she was dragging him along by his heel: and her robe was bedrabbled in men's blood. They went in and out with one another and fought as though they were living people haling away one another's dead.

He wrought also a fair fallow field, large and thrice ploughed already. Many men were working at the plough within it, turning their oxen to and fro, furrow after furrow. Each time that they turned on reaching the headland a man would come up to them and give them a cup of wine, and they would go back to their furrows looking forward to the time when they should again reach the headland. The part that they had ploughed was dark behind them, so that the field, though it was of gold, still looked as if it were being ploughed- very curious to behold.

He wrought also a field of harvest corn, and the reapers were reaping with sharp sickles in their hands. Swathe after swathe fell to the ground in a straight line behind them, and the binders bound them in bands of twisted straw. There were three binders, and behind them there were boys who gathered the cut corn in armfuls and kept on bringing them to be bound: among them all the owner of the land stood by in silence and was glad. The servants were getting a meal ready under an oak, for they had sacrificed a great ox, and were busy cutting him up, while the women were making a porridge of much white barley for the labourers' dinner.

He wrought also a vineyard, golden and fair to see, and the vines were loaded with grapes. The bunches overhead were black, but the vines were trained on poles of silver. He ran a ditch of dark metal all round it, and fenced it with a fence of tin; there was only one path to it, and by this the vintagers went when they would gather the vintage. Youths and maidens all blithe and full of glee, carried the luscious fruit in plaited baskets; and with them there went a boy who made sweet music with his lyre, and sang the Linus-song with his clear boyish voice.

He wrought also a herd of homed cattle. He made the cows of gold and tin, and they lowed as they came full speed out of the yards to go and feed among the waving reeds that grow by the banks of the river. Along with the cattle there went four shepherds, all of them in gold, and their nine fleet dogs went with them. Two terrible lions had fastened on a bellowing bull that was with the foremost cows, and bellow as he might they haled him, while the dogs and men gave chase: the lions tore through the bull's thick hide and were gorging on his blood and bowels, but the herdsmen were afraid to do anything, and only hounded on their dogs; the dogs dared not fasten on the lions but stood by barking and keeping out of harm's way.

The god wrought also a pasture in a fair mountain dell, and large flock of sheep, with a homestead and huts, and sheltered sheepfolds.

Furthermore he wrought a green, like that which Daedalus once made in Cnossus for lovely Ariadne. Hereon there danced youths and maidens whom all would woo, with their hands on one another's wrists. The maidens wore robes of light linen, and the youths well woven shirts that were slightly oiled. The girls were crowned with garlands, while the young men had daggers of gold that hung by silver baldrics; sometimes they would dance deftly in a ring with merry twinkling feet, as it were a potter sitting at his work and making trial of his wheel to see whether it will run, and sometimes they would go all in line with one another, and much people was gathered joyously about the green. There was a bard also to sing to them and play his lyre, while two tumblers went about performing in the midst of them when the man struck up with his tune.

All round the outermost rim of the shield he set the mighty stream of the river Oceanus.
Then when he had fashioned the shield so great and strong, he made a breastplate also that shone brighter than fire. He made helmet, close fitting to the brow, and richly worked, with a golden plume overhanging it; and he made greaves also of beaten tin.

Lastly, when the famed lame god had made all the armour, he took it and set it before the mother of Achilles; whereon she darted like a falcon from the snowy summits of Olympus and bore away the gleaming armour from the house of Vulcan. (Translated by Samuel Butler)

Ecphrasis, ekphrasis. Ut pictura poesis (Horace). Poetry is like painting

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