Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Alexander the Great's mother sleeping with a dragon
  • Creator: Master of the Vienna Chroniques d'Angleterre, illuminator, and an assistant, perhaps the Master of the Harley Froissart, illuminator
  • Description:

    The image above depicts the Macedonian queen Olympias in bed with the Egyptian sorcerer and exiled pharaoh, Nectanebo, disguised as a dragon. Meanwhile, Olympias’s husband, King Philip, peers through a small window in the door to spy on the scene. According to the story, Nectanebo used astrology to convince the queen that a god would appear to her in the form of a dragon and she would bear his son. Nectanebo then transforms himself into a dragon, tricking Olympias into thinking that he is the prophesied god. The dragon seems to smile triumphantly at King Philip, wrapping its arms around Olympias in a possessive manner. Interestingly, the dragon does not conceal or hide Olympias from the eyes of the viewer or King Philip. The audience is thus placed in the position of King Philip, able to observe the scene through a small window, but powerless to intervene. The image brings into question the significance of private female spaces and adulterous queens. As the act depicted here marks the conception of Alexander the Great, it also serves as evidence of Alexander’s extraordinary origins and suggests a potential rationale for his immense success as a warrior and ruler.

    The picture above is included in a book entitled the History of Alexander the Great (Les faize d'Alexandre). This particular version is Vasco da Lucena’s French translation of Quintus Curtius Rufus’s Latin text, Historiae Alexandri Magni, dating to the first century CE. Lucena was a scholar and diplomat who served in the Portuguese and Burgundian courts. He translated the account of Alexander at the behest of Isabella of Portugal and dedicated the book to the future duke, Charles the Bold. Lucena intentionally used this account rather than the widely circulating medieval Alexander romances because he considered Rufus’s version to be the most historically accurate and suitable for educating a young ruler. He supplemented the gaps in Rufus’s history by using other reliable sources, relying significantly on Guarino’s Latin translation of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. This source was not easily accessible at the time, further underlining Lucena’s intention of creating a reliable history of Alexander’s life. The caption underlying this image roughly translates to “Diverse opinions about Alexander’s conception and the dreams, signs, and prodigies that happen”. The relevant section delves into various theories surrounding Alexander’s paternity, from a theory that Alexander was the son of Jupiter, to the above pictured theory that his father was Nectanebo. Regarding the last theory, Lucena asserts that this story as recounted by Vincent of Beauvais is not historically or factually accurate. Despite this assertion, the illustration depicts this scandalous interaction rather than the more realistic theories, which suggests that there may be some meaningful and interesting themes to unpack by analyzing the image.

    This image of cuckoldry was conceived at a time when the traditional medieval house, consisting of one large room where all activities occurred, lost favor as a new domestic plan, with designated rooms for different activities, became more popular. Thus, themes of privacy and voyeurism became more prevalent as certain rooms of the house were gendered and rendered exclusive. Privacy in the Middle Ages was a concerning and potentially dangerous thing, especially when granted to women, because it gave them opportunities to act outside of the male gaze. This historical context underlies the depiction of King Philip spying on the queen in her private moments.

    In this case, King Philip’s intrusion into the queen’s private space is not unjustified, as he catches his wife engaging in an act of infidelity. This act is significant because it presents a threat to the king’s power. Outside popular stories, rumors of real-life adulterous queens signaled that a king had a weak hold on his kingdom. Marriage, particularly with legitimate male heirs, was seen as a marker of mature kingship. It seems important, then, that the only symbolic marker of status on the queen’s body is her golden crown. The bold yellow color signals her relationship to King Philip, who wears his own crown. Additionally, Olympias’s nakedness highlights the vulnerability of the crown to outside encroachment. It is so easy for the queen to be stripped of the garments that mark her social role within the kingdom. Her act may not only symbolize King Philip’s weak rule. At the time of this translation, a popular rumor meant to question a king’s legitimacy did not have to do with the adultery of his own wife, but that of his mother. Rumors that a king was a bastard child undermined his claim to the throne. However, Alexander the Great’s questionable origins do not seem to be used in the story to question his authority, but rather to establish his exceptional and magical beginnings.

    The reason that Alexander avoids the problems of illegitimacy may have to do with the magical nature of his birth. In the story, Olympias is enchanted by Nectanebo, meaning she is not deliberately or knowingly engaging in this adulterous act. Similarly, King Philip is in a position of vulnerability, unable to stop the actions unfolding before his eyes. In some ways, the powerlessness of Alexander’s mortal parents during the act of his conception shows that Alexander’s destiny is larger than the kingdom of Macedonia. The true power in the scene lies with the dragon. Therefore the most active and cognizant member involved with his birth is this mythical creature. He is a king born out of magic and supernatural acts.

    His physical traits and personality further distinguish Alexander as different from most kings. Alexander has different colored eyes, the mane of a lion, and teeth as sharp as a serpent’s. As a child, he commits multiple murders and eventually kills Nectanebo by pushing him off a roof. His exceptionality is reinforced by his legendary success as conqueror of the world, taking over lands from Greece to northwestern India. As an undefeated leader in battle, he is considered one of the most successful military commanders in all of history. In many ways, Alexander is exceptional and god-like, and part of his character may be attributed to his mystical and unique conception story.

  • Source: British Library
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Adultery,     Alexander the Great,     Beds in Art,     Dragons,     Gaze,     Kings,     Magic,     Queens,     Sexuality,     Voyeurism
  • Geographic Area: Low Countries
  • Century: 15
  • Date: circa 1468- 1475
  • Related Work: Full page with the miniature of Alexander's mother, British Library, Burney 169, fol. 14r.
    Presentation of the text by Vasco da Lucena to Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, British Library, Burney 169, fol. 11r.
    Alexander consults his astrologers, British Library, Burney 169, fol. 69r.
    Nectanebo practices magic, comes to the queen's bed as a dragon and Philip, in the final scene, foresees Alexander's future as glorious but brief as a young dragon hatches from an egg and shortly dies. Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum historiale, Bibliotheque nationale, Fr. 50, fol. 120v.
    Nectanebo enchants Olympias as she lies naked in bed, British Library, Royal 20 B XX, fol. 8v.
    Olympias and Nectanebo embrace in bed, while a dragon watches, British Library, Royal 15 E VI, fol. 6r. Conception of Alexander the Great, Vincent of Beauvais, Miroir historial, J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XIII 5, v2 (83.MP.148.2), fol. 1v.
    Olympias is seduced by Nectanebo in the form of a dragon,The Hague, KB, 78 D 39, fol. 364r.
  • Current Location: London, British Library, Burney MS 169, fol. 14r
  • Original Location: Bruges
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Parchment; Paints; Gold
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 43/31/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources:

    Dechant, D. Lyle. "Fascinated by Fascination: Female Privacy and the Leipzig ‘Love magic’ Panel." Visions of Enchantment: Occultism, Magic and Visual Culture. Edited by Daniel Zamani and Judith Noble. Fulgur Press, 2019. Pages 38 - 49.

    Franklin-Brown, Mary. "The Monstrous Birth of Alexander the Great: Thomas de Kent’s Roman de toute chevalerie and Twelfth-Century Natural Science." Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 49, 3 (2019): 541–561.

    Jouanno, Corinne. "Novelistic Lives And Historical Biographies: The Life Of Aesop and the Alexander Romance as Fringe Novels." Fiction on the Fringe : Novelistic Writing in the Post-classical Age. Edited by Grammatiki A. Karla. Brill, 2009. Pages 33-48.

    Laynesmith, Joanna. "Telling Tales of Adulterous Queens in Medieval England: From Olympias of Macedonia to Elizabeth Woodville.” Every Inch a King: Comparative Studies on Kings and Kingship in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds. Edited by Lynette Mitchell and Charles Melville. Brill, 2012. Pages 195-214.

    McKendrick, Scot. History of Alexander the Great. An Illuminated Manuscript of Vasco da Lucena's French Translation of the Ancient Text by Quintus Curtius Rufus. J. Paul Getty Museum, 1996.

    McKendrick, Scot. 'The Illustrated Manuscripts of Vasco da Lucena's Translation of Curtius's Historiae Alexandri Magni: Nature Corrupted by Fortune?" Medieval Manuscripts of the Latin Classics: Production and Use. Edited by C. A. Chavannes-Mazel and M. Smith. Conference Papers from the Seminar in the History of the Book to 1500, Leiden, 1993. Red Gull Press, 1996. Pages 131-149.

    Pérez-Simon, Maud. "Royal MS. 20 B.XX: Alexander the Great and the Voice of the Master: Interpretation and Astrology in a Medieval Manuscript." Electronic British Library Journal Essay VIII (2014): 1-19. Available open access: https://www.bl.uk/eblj/2014articles/pdf/ebljarticle82014.pdf