Magazine article Humanities

One Off

Magazine article Humanities

One Off

Article excerpt

"IN the Middle Ages, before forks replaced fingers as the eating utensil of choice, it was often necessary, while feasting, to rinse one's hands. Hence the aquamanile, a table-top, water-dispensing vessel found in wealthier homes. This one depicts the humiliation of Aristotle by Phyllis, a purported consort of Alexander the Great.

As the story goes, Aristotle was smitten by the lovely Phyllis. She said she would consider receiving his attentions only if he allowed her to ride on his back. So the great philosopher got down on his hands and knees. Meanwhile, Phyllis had arranged for Alexander, Aristotle's student, to witness this humiliating scene, in which the future emperor's teacher was ridden like a lady's palfrey.

Aristotle and Phyllis decorated many a household object, including combs, mirrors, and dishes. The story is "quite brilliant and clearly struck a chord with viewers, as the many renderings of the story attest," says Joaneath Spicer, the James A. Murningham Curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, which displayed the Aristotle aquamanile at its recent NEH-supported exhibit, "A Feast for the Senses: Art and Experience in Medieval Europe. …

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