Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Phyllis Talks with Aristotle through a Window and Phyllis Riding Aristotle
  • Creator:
  • Description: The narrative imagery captured in these two barbed quatrefoils in the Maltererteppich, or Malterer embroidery, tells the medieval legend of the classical philosopher Aristotle, and how he succumbed to the power of female sexual wiles. Beginning in the thirteenth century, medieval poets crafted the story of how Aristotle warned his student, Alexander the Great, not to lose control of his wits to his beautiful mistress (sometimes wife), Phyllis. In an act of retaliation, Phyllis set out to seduce Aristotle himself. She succeeded when she beguiled him so thoroughly that he allowed her to ride him like a horse, complete with bit and bridle. This moralizing yet comical parable highlights medieval anxieties concerning the danger of women’s potential ability to exercise total control over men. The scene at the left shows Phyllis, dressed in a long white gown and golden hair net, leaning into the window of Aristotle’s study. In Henri d’Andeli’s poem “Lai d’Aristote,” Phyllis danced in a garden before Aristotle’s window in order to tempt the philosopher away from his intellectual and spiritual work. On the embroidery Aristotle turns away from his table of books and reaches out to caress Phyllis under the chin, a pervasive gesture of romantic and sexual interest in the Middle Ages. The scene within the right quatrefoil depicts the climactic moment of the Phyllis and Aristotle legend. Here Aristotle walks on all fours with Phyllis perched in a golden saddle on his back. She grasps the reigns of his bridle in her right hand and urges him on with a three-pronged whip in her left hand.

    Representations of Phyllis riding Aristotle were quite popular from the thirteenth century on, appearing in manuscripts, on domestic vessels, and even in church sculpture. The Maltererteppich itself was likely once a cover for a bench, and was commissioned by Johannes Malterer, either for a marriage or for the convent where his sister Anna was a nun (Smith, 1990). On the Maltererteppich, however, the legend of Phyllis and Aristotle joins with scenes from the story of Samson, a similar legend concerning the poet Virgil, narrative moments from tales of the Arthurian knight Iwaine, and, finally, a lady with a unicorn. Scholars have debated the purpose of employing this “Power of Women topos” on a tapestry meant for a convent, arguing that the narrative warns of the dangers of fleshly love over spiritual love. If the tapestry celebrated the occasion of a marriage, however, the imagery may have been intended to demonstrate the transformative power of love itself.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public Domain
  • Subject (See Also): Love   Phyllis, Lover of Aristotle   Power of Women (Literary Topos)   Sexuality   Shame
  • Geographic Area: Germany
  • Century: 14
  • Date: 1310-1320
  • Related Work: View of the entire embroidery: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c4/Maltererteppich_complete.jpg; Close up of Phyllis astride Aristotle:http://www.zum.de/Faecher/G/BW/Landeskunde/rhein/kultur/museen/augustin/malt03.htm
  • Current Location: Freiburg, Augustinermuseum, AMF, Inv. Nr. 11508
  • Original Location:
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Textiles
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Linen; Wool
  • Donor: Layman; Johannes Malterer; Female religious ; Anna Malterer, nun at Saint Katherine's Monastery, Freiburg
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 68/490/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Gourlay, Kristina E. "A Positive Representation of the Power of Young Women: The Malterer Embroidery Re-examined," in Young Medieval Women. Edited by Katherine J. Lewis, Noel James Menuge, and Kim M. Phillips. St. Martin's Press, 1999. pp. 69 - 102;
    Rushing, James A., Jr. Images of Adventure: Ywain in the Visual Arts. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. pp. 219 - 44.
    Rushing, James A., Jr. "Iwein as Slave of Woman: the “Maltererteppich” in Freiburg." Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 55, (1992): Pages 124 - 35;
    Smith, Susan L. "The Power of Women Topos on a Fourteenth-Century Embroidery." Viator 12, (1990): Pages 203-34.