The Art of Vision - Ekphrasis in Medieval Literature and Culture

International workshop at the Freie Universität Berlin hosted by the research group "Topics and Tradition", February 25-28, 2010


Medieval culture was fascinated with the visual. In the Middle Ages visual art performed powerful cultural work in both the religious and the secular spheres and the vast middle ground where the two in fact become inseparable. Consequently, visual art was open to all kinds of discursive appropriations just as the visual in general was a highly contested ground on which some of the most volatile issues of medieval culture were debated.

Hence it comes as no surprise that the world of visual art is a constant presence in medieval literature. But that presence is anything but unproblematic since a long and complex tradition of ekphrasis claimed the privilege of mediating the visual experience in literary texts. With its manifold and frequently fictional depictions of visual art ekphrasis offers a site where the most arcane and the most mundane forms of medieval aesthetic and ideological experience come into contact with a highly sophisticated tradition of representation and narrative. And that tradition is all the more intriguing because it usually remains implicit – primarily expressed and critiqued in the practice of verbal representation itself.

This international workshop seeks to tease out some of the many facets that inform the discursive traditions of ekphrasis in the Middle Ages. Though our principal focus is on the English Later Middle Ages, we are bringing together scholars from various fields in order to establish as broad and variegated an approach to the issue as possible.