Ekphrasis is the ancient Greek term for poems about paintings. 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 mythological story of the Fall of Icarus.
The poem and essay below inaugurates a series of blogposts presenting ekphrastic poems written by poets (and their students) who have taught in Orvieto or participated in activities of the Studio for Art, Faith & History. The poems will respond typically to works of art still found in their original settings where particular people gathered for particular purposes. This is the case with our first poem, written in response to a fresco depicting the visit of the three kings to the baby Jesus, painted by Fra Angelico on the wall of the private retreat cell of Cosimo de Medici, patron of the refurbished Monastery of San Marco in Florence.
JOHN SKILLEN: CHRISTINE PERRIN AND THE MAGI IN MONASTERY SAN MARCO
Fra Angelico’s Adoration, San Marco, Florence
Angelico has juxtaposed his bloody
Son of Man to the infant—
the blood spills his ropy veined
inner-arms where the tender flesh is pale
and the mica-flecked wall glitters
like the surface of the moon.
In this season and region, the olive trees
are heavy with dark fruit; all one afternoon
I gather them with my hands
to be crushed. You have to grasp
the bitter flesh-pits and drop them in a net.
Beyond the near-winter fields,
only the hour-bells carry over the gulf
from the high city to shadowed valley.
The monk who woke and slept
and filled his eyes with this bright
painting all his days, did he see the end
in the beginning? An arc, an arrow, a shape in nature?
Did its heart-tip burn the mark
like a black candle in dull noon?
My sight searches and searches,
as though to go to Him.
So many buried lamps. What shall I
take for a witness? Angelico’s blue?
Fruit breaking loose from a tree?
The guard’s heavy footfall on the stone floor?
Or the words he spoke
in a tongue I could not understand,
when I broke into song to sound the cell,
to hear the empty chamber answer.
Almost every semester an ekphrasis-oriented poetry course is included in the curriculum of Gordon College’s arts-oriented program in Orvieto. 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, or Slander. 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 Mount Purgatory 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 one to suppose being in raw unmediated communication 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 excrescences 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 Shelley 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 trope common 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.
I see signs among our students of growing weariness with the intolerable burden of always starting from scratch and from the self to achieve “originality.” 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 section V of “East Coker”).
Note: Christine Perrin, director of writing at Messiah College, is a regular guest teacher of the Poetry of Ekphrasiscourse offered every semester in Gordon College's arts-oriented semester program in Orvieto. Several of her ekphrastic poems have appeared in the website of ArtWay, including an earlier version of "Fra Angelico's Adoration, San Marco, Florence" included in this blogpost. This poem, as well as "At the San Brizio Chapel, Resurrection of the Flesh," are included in the recently-published collection of her poems entitled Bright Mirror (available through Amazon).