Master of the Amsterdam cabinet: Aristotle and Phyllis (1483 - 1487)

(Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

A print from an unknown 15th century German artist with the notnames 'Master of the Amsterdam cabinet' and 'Master of the Housebook'. This print shows a 13th century exemplum, a story used to illustrate a point, by Jacques de Vitry about the the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle and the Macedonian king Alexander III the Great. According to the story when king Alexander the great was conquering Asia, he fell in love with the Indian girl Phyllis. Alexander was so in love that he started to neglect the affairs of state, much to the horror of the Macedonian nobles. The nobles send Aristotle, the tutor of Alexander, to successfully remind him of his duties as a king but which angered Phyllis who plotted revenge. Phyllis turned her attention to Aristotle and started to seduce the old philosopher and very soon Aristotle was head over heels in love. Phyllis stated that she would only take Aristotle as her lover if he allowed her to to ride on his back like a horse. Aristotle agreed but Phyllis had secretly informed Alexander to watch the performance. How the story ends differs from the several versions: Alexander laughs at Aristotle, Aristotle is humiliated and goes into exile. The most popular ending is that when Alexander sees Aristotle and Phyllis, he immediately orderes the execution of Aristotle. The philosopher however countered the threat by claiming that "“If thus it happened to me, an old man most wise, that I was deceived by a woman, you can see that I taught you well, that it could happen to you, a young man.” Upon hearing that, Alexander spared Aristotle and returned to his duties of a king.
When Alexander saw Aristotle and Phyllis, he immediately ordered the execution of Aristotle. The philosopher however countered the threat by claiming that "“If thus it happened to me, an old man most wise, that I was deceived by a woman, you can see that I taught you well, that it could happen to you, a young man.” Upon hearing that, Alexander spared Aristotle and returned to his duties of a king. The moral of this fictional story seems to warn men of the threatening power of women, the triumph of female seduction over male intellect or even an anti-Aristotle type of message. If even the wise and most learned Aristotle could be reduced to a rude animal by lust and the wiles of a woman, how much more would lesser men suffer. Engraving from 1483-1487.

Comments