Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Aristotle ridden by Phyllis
  • Creator:
  • Description: This aquamanile depicts Aristotle, the greatest Greek philosopher, being ridden like a horse by a beautiful, young woman named Phyllis. An aquamanile is a vessel used for pouring water and washing hands, either during a religious ceremony or before a meal. The baudy subject matter depicted on this aquamanile suggests that it was used in a domestic environment, and that it served the dual purpose of washing guests’ hands and entertaining them. According to the story, Aristotle was acting as a tutor and advisor to young Alexander the Great, and he scolded his pupil for being overly preoccupied with his beautiful mistress. Angered by his comments, the mistress, commonly known as Phyllis, resolved to take revenge. One day while Aristotle was in his study, she appeared in his window with her skirts raised suggestively high. Her beauty captivated the old philosopher, and he begged to have sex with her. She said she would agree to his request only if he let her ride him like a horse first. He eagerly agreed, and Phyllis arranged for Alexander to witness secretly her triumphant ride and Aristotle’s humiliation.

    Multiple role reversals are at play in this image. Aristotle’s assumption of the posture of a horse metaphorically marks his transformation from man to beast. He is no longer a man of reason, but has become a bestial slave to passion and the flesh. In the thirteenth century, the relation between horse and rider was used as a visual topos to demonstrate relations of power. The act of mounting the back of a beast was a symbol of ancient sovereignty. Here, Aristotle is the horse, meaning that he is being overpowered, and Phyllis assumes the dominant position of the rider, a typically male position. Thus, the image of Phyllis riding Aristotle reflects a reversal of the normative gender hierarchy in which women were not intended to rule, but be ruled. Also, another set of assocations carried by the verbs “to ride” or “to mount” refer to the act of sexual intercourse. Typically, the man was the “rider,” the person in the dominant position during copulation, both over his passions and his partner. The woman was the “horse,” the mindless, submissive, sexual object. But in this image, Aristotle is underneath Phyllis who is the active and controling partner in their sexual relationship. This symbolizes a reversal of sexual dominance between men and women. "

  • Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art with the image identified as part of the Open Access for Scholarly Content program.
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Aquamanilia Aristotle, Ancient Philosopher Phyllis, Lover of Aristotle Seduction Sexuality
  • Geographic Area: South Netherlands
  • Century: 14- 15
  • Date: late 14th or early 15th century
  • Related Work: See a selection of aquamanilia on a Pinterest page by Pamela Saunders: http://www.pinterest.com/gbertholet/aquamanilia/
  • Current Location: New York City, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975.1.1416
  • Original Location: Southern Netherlands
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Metalwork
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Aquamanilia; Bronze
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 32.5 cm/17.9 cm/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Smith, Susan L. The Power of Women: A Topos in Medieval Art and Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1995. pg. 66-136; Wisse, Jacob. "Burgundian Netherlands: Private Life". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bnpr/hd_bnpr.htm