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Cover of: Turning Monuments into Discourse
Jan R. Stenger

Turning Monuments into Discourse

Section: Articles
Volume 9 (2023) / Issue 1, pp. 20-47 (28)
Published 25.07.2023
DOI 10.1628/rre-2023-0005
Ancient ecphrases of sacred architecture and sanctuaries have often been exploited by archaeological scholars to reconstruct the layout, dimensions, appearance, and structure of temples and churches. This article intends to reflect on the possibilities and limits of extracting factual information on sacred buildings from their textual representations. For this aim, it surveys a wide range of literary descriptions of religious architecture, taking as its starting point the rhetorical theory of ecphrasis. Examining the characteristic features of these texts, including vocabulary, narrative technique, and authorial comments, it outlines a typology of three modes of ecphrases: while the factual mode conveys the essential facts about the buildings from a detached viewpoint, the epideictic mode interprets physical structures as signifiers and communicates the ethical qualities of the builder embodied by the building. The third type seeks to reveal the deeper, symbolic meaning of sacred architecture, reading the material building allegorically as the visible image of a transcendent reality. All three approaches, to be sure, impart knowledge about the buildings, and especially the first mode often provides precise information. However, none of them aims at completeness of description. In the epideictic and symbolic ecphrases, the material building primarily serves to convey a specific message, so that information about the architecture is clearly subordinated to this higher purpose. The typology outlined in this article makes clear that it is essential to be aware of the texts' intentions in representing sacred buildings. Their specific agenda governs the selection and foregrounding of information about the physical structures and gives them a particular shape so that there is never an exact correspondence between architecture and text.