Illustration, Allegory and Ekphrasis


Illustration is a work of art where the subject is stronger than the form. The purpose of an illustration is to clarify or decorate a text by representing the content of the text in a visual form. There is often a close correlation between the subject and the illustration itself with little interpretation asked of the viewer in order for them to understand what they are seeing.

Allegory is a story with two meanings, a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning. Second and third century theologians Origen and Justin Martyr, as well as other theologians of the early church, wrote of humanity’s capacity to know God through metaphoric images of God. Metaphoric images are perhaps best thought of as non-pictorial representations of God, less like narrative illustrations and more like traces of life that point to God’s existence. Thus an allegory is a form of extended metaphor, in which objects, persons, and actions in a narrative, are equated with the meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. The underlying meaning of allegory has moral, social, religious, or political significance. The characters depicted are often personifications of abstract ideas as charity, greed, or envy.

Ekphrasis writing is a verbal description on a visual work of art. You can try it yourself, by looking at a piece of art such as ‘Untitled” by Moses Hoskins (above) and writing your impressions as prose or poetry. Because it engages our personal skills of recognition and meaning-making, ekphrasis writing can be very useful in teaching allegory. Where ekphrasis writing begins with image to inspire the writing of a responsive text, Visio Divina begins with an existing text (usually scripture) and uses it to frame the illustrative and allegorical meaning present in a work of art.

Visio Divina is a form of scripture study with images. I think of it as the granddaughter of Lectio Divina. Meditative exercises like Visio Divina and Lectio Divina help us to tap into the multiple intelligences of our selves and the communities in which we work. As priests and ministers we are able to bring an art form into religious life and use it to inspire discussion, critical thinking, writing and more.

As an individual practice Visio Divina serves as a spiritual discipline similar to Lectio Divina, its grandfather. As a community practice, Visio Divina serves contemporary communities by offering a means to bring visuals of any origin into the context of their common life. It provides opportunities to engage in higher-order thinking through analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. It can be done on location wherever art is present (museums, churches, billboards) or in a classroom with posters or prints. At its simplest, Visio Divina asks : Where do the writer and the artist have similarities and where do they have differences?

On View: “Untitled” by Moses Hoskins, painting and drawing media on canvas, 54 x 80 inches. Seen at Image & Spirit Blogspot, an ECVA sketchbook open at the intersections of art and faith.

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