The humiliation of the Greek philosopher Aristotle was one of the most powerful and popular pictorial examples of the theme of Weibermacht or the 'Power of Woman' in the late Middle Ages. Although Indian in origin, the legend was popularised by the 13th century cleric Jacques de Vitry in his Sermones feriales et communes, and by Cranach's day had been treated in various texts and in a German 15th century play, Ain Spil von Maister Aristotiles. Although payment is recorded in 1524 for a decorative painting by Cranach of this subject on cloth for the Castle of Lochau in Saxony, the present painting appears to be the only surviving panel painting of this subject. Previously unrecorded it represents an addition of enormous importance to one of the central themes in Cranach's oeuvre.
There are various versions of the legend of Phyllis and Aristotle, but Cranach would doubtless have been familiar with the essential elements. Aristotle is supposed to have admonished his student, usually identified as the young Alexander the Great, for paying too much attention to Phyllis, a woman of the court, and thus paying too little attention to his studies and state duties. Phyllis, angered by Aristotle's interference, decided to revenge herself by seducing him. By promenading suggestively in the garden beneath Aristotle's window, she succeeded in arousing the aged philosopher. The focal point of the narrative usually illustrated is when, as here, in return for the promise of her favours, Phyllis demands and receives a ride on the philospher's back. Aristotle's humiliation thus provides a salient lesson about the spiritual and physical vulnerability of even the most learned philospher.
Aristotle and Phyllis was one of the several stories illustrating the power of woman over men which enjoyed great popularity in medieval art and literature; these include, to name but three, David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah, and Hercules and Omphale. Such subjects were represented either as independent images or together in sculptural groups, stained glass and other decorative arts. In pictorial art in northern Europe, the subject has been treated on several occasions before Cranach. There are engravings, for example, by the Housebook Master, the Master MZ [Matthias Zaisinger] (c. 1490-1500), Hans Baldung Grien (1513) (reproduced fig. 1) and Lucas van Leyden (c. 1515).1 In addition to these, three drawings may be cited: that by Hans Baldung Grien of 1503 now in the Cabinet des Dessins, Musée du Louvre, Paris, (fig. 3) and another by Jan de Beer in the British Museum, London,2 and by Urs Graf (1521), formerly in the Gemäldegalerie at Dessau.
Cranach's depiction of the subject differs from that of his contemporaries in several ways, but most evidently in the omission of the bridle and whip normally used by Phyllis to ride her famous steed. Both Baldung, in his woodcut of 1513, and Lucas van Leyden, in his of a few years later, had even depicted both Phyllis and Aristotle completely naked, an overtly sexual connotation which Cranach, for all his skill in the refined depiction of the nude, has here disregarded. Cranach has in fact dispensed with several basic narrative elements in order to focus on the psychological relationship between the two protagonists, alone in a landscape, emphasizing the contrast between the elegant courtly female and the anguished scholar. Any onlookers, such as the young Alexander who features in many of the woodcuts, are here banished. Instead, Phyllis' direct gaze invites the spectator's own involvement, a device frequently employed by Cranach in other works. Both figures are elegantly attired - indeed Phyllis is barely to be distinguished from many of the country ladies that appear in Cranach's work at this date; a similar hat is worn, for example, in his Venus and Cupid of the following year.3 Equally, similar landscape settings were frequently employed by Cranach, for example in his Samson and Delilah of 1529.4 Although it is tempting to identify the castle astride a rocky bluff in this painting as the possible residence of Cranach's patron, such a feature recurs in many of Cranach's works of this period, such as the Venus and Cupid of 1530 now in Copenhagen.5
The overall effect is one of genteel and humorous restraint, quite different from the baudier or more overtly sexual representations of Baldung or Zaisinger. Though the comic and erotic undertones of such subjects are never far from the surface, Cranach seeks to strike a balance with a suitably erudite moralising tone appropriate to the taste of the Wittenberg Court and his patron, Frederick the Wise.
From the early Middle Ages to the Renaissance, the story of Phyllis and Aristotle invited many different interpretations. It could be seen as a moralistic denunciation of the ways of antiquity; a warning against the evil cunning of women (Weiberlist); a sermon on the powers of love; a depiction of man reduced to sin by his animal nature; or a humorous satire on a wise man's follies (the philosopher turned fool). Although Hutchinson has argued that in the case of the Housebook Master, the story was used by modern humanists to ridicule the Via Antiqua, which was based on the philosophy of Aquinas and the principles of Aristotelian logic, it cannot necessarily be inferred that Cranach's painting has a similar purpose in mind. Although such a reading would fit with the thinking that Cranach's friend and patron, Martin Luther, was developing at Wittenberg, it is perhaps more likely that the true 'milieu' of the painting lies in the courtly tastes of Cranach's patron, Frederick the Wise, and his contemporaries. Cranach or his patron no doubt cared less about specific anti-Aristotelian thought than in the humorous theme of Weiberlist and its attendant moral warnings. This painting forms part of a group of similar subjects painted by Cranach throughout his career, such as Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, Unequal Lovers and Hercules and Omphale, which clearly matched the tastes of his patrons. The series of paintings which are recorded as hanging in 1513 in the bedchamber of Prince Johann of Saxony, such as Salome, Hercules, Omphale, Venus and Cupid and Lucretia, were, for example, all historical characters which in the eyes of contemporaries could be connected with the saying 'was Fraueu alles vermochten' (women doing as they please). The importance of such works lies in the fact that Cranach was the first (and usually the only) artist to take such 'erotic' or 'moral' themes which had previously only been used in graphic or decorative work, and use them in the 'higher' form of panel painting. For the fullest discussion of the theme of Weibermacht and Cranach's works, see D. Koepplin and T. Falk in the exhibition catalogue, Lukas Cranach-Gemälde, Zeichnungen, Druckgraphik, Basel/Stuttgart, 1974/1976, p. 562 et seq.
Although Cranach's painting of Phyllis and Aristotle would undoubtedly have caught the interest of any cultured, or theologically - aware, patron of that time, and perhaps gained by its intellectual association with Aristotle, there is something more universal in the exemplum of the seduction and domination of (old) men by young women that in paintings such as this both Cranach and his contemporaries could understand and still celebrate.
We are grateful to Dr. Dieter Koepplin, for his help in on this entry, which is based on research published in his book Neue Werke von Lukas Cranach und ein altes Bild einer polnischen Schlacht - von Hans Krell?, Basel 2003.
1 For which see, for example, the exhibition catalogue The Prints of Lucas van Leyden and his contemporaries, Washington, National Gallery of Art 1983, under cat. no. 49 and here reproduced fig. 4.
2 cf A.E. Popham, Catalogue of Drawings..., London 1932, vol. V, p. 5, no. 3, here reproduced fig. 2.
3 Rome, Galleria Borghese, reproduced in M. Friedländer and J. Rosenberg, The Paintings of Lucas Cranach, London 1978, p. 118, no. 245.
4 Staatsgalerie, Augsburg, op. cit., p. 111, no. 212.
5 ibid, p. 118, no. 244.
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