Ekphrasis is a Greek word that translates “to express, enunciate, detail, phrase, signify.” It is usually used in a narrow, technical sense to refer to poems written in response to individual works of visual art: W. H. Auden’s “MusÃ©e des Beaux Arts,” for example. It can be more widely applied to writing about any other art: a description of a dance, or a kind of literary Fantasia. I host a monthly gathering of subcreators from across the media: poets, prose writers, visual artists, composers, actors. We attempt to describe our experiences of Christianity in art. Because we endeavour to express, enunciate, detail, phrase and signify the life of faith in our work, we call the group “Ekphrasis.”
There are many ways of expressing faith—from the broadest spirituality to the most specific assertions of a denominational creed—in a work of art besides simply including religious subjects or stating doctrinal truths. What follows is a discussion of three methods of Ekphrastic Christianity ranging from external to implicit: encoding, embodiment, and incarnational.
Encoding is perhaps the least subtle form of theological artisanship. It occurs on a topographical, or superficial, level. A painter incorporates a cross—crossing tree branches, telephone wires, human figures—into a landscape; a poet employs an acrostic or an iconic textual shape; a composer spells a significant word in the letter-names of notes or smuggles in a sacred tune as basis for theme-and-variations or fugal development. This method is only successful, as art, when combined with great technical virtuosity. George Herbert’s shape-poems, such as “Easter Wings” or “The Altar,” are not merely curiosities. They are emblematic, yes, but are also well-crafted verse. Felix Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” symphony succeeds not because of its direct quotation from Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” but as a result of the careful integration of the borrowed tune into the texture, melody and formal beauties of the entire piece. Bach used this method extensively, deliberately enfolding musical quotations into his pieces so the most erudite of his listeners would recognize an unsung Biblical allusion, cross-referencing his own oeuvre in an elaborate musical catechism. In each case, the tune works with the other parts according to perfect mathematical principles of counterpoint.
Embodiment, however, more deeply indwells the flesh of the art. Embodiment often employs the same techniques as encoding, integrated more fully into the piece. An artist believes a doctrinal statement about God, himself, or the created order, and infuses this belief into the actual stuff of his handiwork. It is one with the notes, paint, stone, pixels, rhymes, meter and brushstrokes: inseparable. The result is seamless. Embodiment can be done very cleverly by using a secular genre against itself. Herbert wrote love sonnets, but addressed them to the Divine Lover while including rhetoric questioning the propriety of appropriating that form. In this way, he interrogated the sacred-secular divide with a brevity, precision and clarity impossible in a prose treatise. Bach also uses this method prolifically, and to powerful transformative effect. He was known for employing the rhythms and binary form of the French overture, traditionally played while the king entered the theatre, underneath a sacred text, thus creating a political and doctrinal statement about Christ’s kingship (as outlined by Michael Marissen in a lecture at the Bethlehem Bach Festival in 2006).
Dante Alighieri has given us perhaps the most complete literary example of encoded and embodied theology. His entire cosmology is theology in physical form. The simplest technique Dante uses in The Divine Comedy is the pattern of threes. The poem is in three volumes, yet is one—a microcosm of the Trinity. Each volume has thirty-three cantos—Christ’s traditional age at His death—except the last, with thirty-four cantos to make up a round one hundred. The form of the verse itself, terza rima, is a pattern of triadic interlocking rhymes: a-b-a b-c-b c-d-c and so on. Of course, the geography of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven are physical expressions of his belief, as are the spheres of the planets, the chronology of his journey, positions of the stars, seating arrangements in the Celestial Rose—supernatural social hierarchies are integral to the poetry and to his spiritual thought.
A final, most ingenious, method of Ekphrastic Christianity originates as a mindset or worldview rather than a technique. It expresses itself regardless, almost in spite, of the work’s actual content. This has been called a “sacramental” and even “incarnational” approach to art. It does not need to smuggle in any particular subject matter in order to communicate its deeply redemptive perspective. If you play an incarnational composer’s records backwards, you won’t hear Bible verses chanted in Hebrew; if you hold his paintings upside down you won’t find Y-H-W-H painted in the bushes; if you read the letters of her poems diagonally down the page, you won’t find a Sunday school message spelled out in code. Nor will you, necessarily, find emblematic geography or metaphoric mythology. Rather, you will find a deep affirmation of the essential goodness of material creation permeating the loving treatment of the media themselves.
While a sacramental artist acknowledges the profoundly fallen condition of the human race and the effects of sin on even the natural world, she also knows that God created matter, loves it and sustains it. This delight in the physical comes through in the way such an artist revels in the stuff of art. A reader, listener or audience member can feel that affirming love in the very textures of the work: the grit, pulse, heat and cold. Canvas and paint caressed into bearing image; sound waves of music and spoken word stroked into acoustic praise; black-and-white print petted and fondled into pleasurable forms; the human body adored and disciplined in dance.
It is almost an erotics of art. And why not? God is, after all, the lover of the soul. The Medieval mystics portrayed the soul’s ecstasy in orgasmic language; John Donne begged for ravishment.
You might wonder whether a sensual response to Omnipotence is only an historical phenomenon—whether theological Ekphrasis is restricted to the Renaissance and the high virtuosity of the Seventeenth Century. While perhaps the most skillful applications of encoding and embodiment are relegated to the past, a sacramental approach to art lives on.
There are many examples of sacramental craftspeople in all of the arts. One poet who has long practiced an incarnational approach to his devotional life and writing is Scott Cairns. As an Orthodox Christian, iconography and the sacraments are essential to his spirituality. This is evident in his verse, as well. He caresses the materiality of art in “Icons”:
We look to them to apprehend
a glimpse of life enduring
out of time . . .
The stuff of them
—the paint, the wood, the lucent
golden nimbi—also speaks
in favor of how good
all stuff remains despite our long
held habits of abuse, disinterest,
glib dichotomies dividing
meager views of body and its
anima . . .
—Scott Cairns, Compass of Affection: Poems New and Selected
©2006 by Scott Cairns
Used by permission of Paraclete Press
Available at www.paracletepress.com or 800-451-5006.
The stuff of icons matters. Their making matters, as does the making of verses that weave the beauty of sounds (nimbi, lucent, anima, abuse) into a paean of physical praise. This is incarnational art.
Why do these categories matter? How they are applicable to audiences and artists? They certainly can be used as critical categories for evaluating art. More than that: intelligent, thoughtful Christians who appreciate art can look, listen and read with an eye (ear?) open for an incarnational approach and can delight in the embodied realities expressed there. Taste, touch, listen, read and see that the Lord is good, His creation is richly textured and His subcreators re-incarnate His tactile hedonism for your body’s and soul’s pleasure. Relish it!
And you artists: do it! Express your dearest doctrinal beliefs through the technical aspects of your art. Let your faith find direct, immediate expression in the arrangement of rhymes, melodic contours, chisel stroke, choreography, pan and zoom. How? By how you love the goopy and gritty alliterative triple-axels of your flesh. In a word, by Ekphrasis.