You are here

Arachne’s Tapestry and the Metaphors of Ecphrasis

Albert Bates

Cambridge University

Nothing survives from Graeco-Roman material culture that looks quite like Arachne’s tapestry (Met. 6.103-128). While individual tableaux on the textile, such as the image of Europa sitting on the bull, are well represented in the archaeological record, no artwork survives that juxtaposes images of metamorphosed gods raping women. If archaeology cannot provide a single parallel for an artwork depicting just two of these rapes juxtaposed, we’re left asking why Ovid crams his textile full of no less than twenty of them. Traditional explanations to this puzzle have been unanimously metapoetic, focusing on how the ecphrasis’ swirling catalogue of rape functions as a mise-en-abyme for the meandering Metamorphoses itself, with its ever-shifting tales of divine transformation and sexual assault (e.g. Anderson 1968, Curran 1972, Leach 1974, Harries 1990, Oliensis 2004).

Such explanations, however, are somewhat deflective: they have to look beyond the ecphrasis’ shoulder into the epic beyond to make sense of the rape. This paper instead stares the ecphrasis square in the face by asking what divine rape might have to say about ecphrasis itself. To do so, the paper focusses on three contemporary metaphors of ecphrasis that Arachne’s tapestry self- consciously exploits: ecphrasis as a deceit, ecphrasis as a rapture and ecphrasis as a rape. The paper starts by looking at the metaphor of deceit in both the rhetoric of naturalism and enargeia: convincing art could be said to ‘trick’ its viewers (as Parrhasius’ painted curtain ‘tricked’ (fefellisset) Zeuxis, Pliny 35.65-66), just as vivid language could ‘deceive’ listeners into thinking they could see what they heard (cf. Progymnasmata). Given this rhetorical context, this paper asks what it means to encounter images of deception on Arachne’s tapestry, in which mortal women are continuously tricked by the gods’ metamorphoses (elusam (103), celatus imagine (110), luserit (113, 124), fallis (117), falsa deceperit uva (125)). I suggest that these images materialise and mythologise in the textile the metaphor of naturalism and ecphrasis as deceit, thus forcing the reader to confront their own deception as they are almost ‘tricked’ by the text into believing they can see the description (“you would say that the bull was real, that the waves were real”, 104).

Next, I briefly trace the metaphor of rapture in the rhetoric of naturalism and enargeia. Just as we nowadays speak of being ‘taken’ or ‘drawn in’, ‘swept’, ‘whisked’ or ‘carried away’ by an immersive artwork or book, so too the Graeco-Romans deployed similar metaphors: the Elder Philostratus, for example, refers to himself as being “carried away by a painting” (ἐξήχθην ὑπὸ τῆς γραφῆς, Im. 1.28.2), while his grandson, the Younger Philostratus, lists painting’s ability to “transfer men’s souls” (ψυχαγωγῆσαι, Im. Praef. 4) as one of the medium’s essential qualities. Similarly, Quintilian refers to enargeia as “leading” (perducere) listeners towards the description (Inst. Orat. 4.2.13), while Longinus writes of it, more violently this time, as “dragging” (περιελκόμεθα) them there (15.11). With this rhetorical backdrop in mind, this paper argues that the opening image of Europa’s raptus (103-7) functions self-reflexively by offering meta-reflection on the viewer/reader’s own enraptured experience, as they are almost ‘carried away’ into the frame of the tapestry by the vividness of the ecphrasis describing this most naturalistic artwork.

Finally – and more tentatively – I trace the metaphor of ecphrasis as rape by telescoping in on a passage of Quintilian (Inst. Orat. 8.3.66-68), where the difference between plain language and enargic language is based on how they relate to the audiences’ body: plain language only embraces (complectitur), whereas vivid language penetrates (penetrat) its audiences’ mind. If this is so, I suggest that the images of penetration on Arachne’s tapestry (which are sometimes explicit e.g. inplerit (111)) stand in for the ‘penetration’ of the reader’s mind as this ecphrasis muscles its way into their imagination. Seen in this light, is it so surprising that rape was so ripe for ecphrasis?

Session/Panel Title

Ovid and the Constructed Visual Environment

Session/Paper Number


Share This Page

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy