Berlin Alexander Romance

78 C 1 - Kupferstichkabinett Staatliche Museen (Berlin, Germany)

Alternate Titles:

L'Ystoire du bon roi Alexandre, Berliner Alexanderroman

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Codiology

Alternate Titles

L'Ystoire du bon roi Alexandre
Berliner Alexanderroman

Type
Extent / Format

168 pages / 27.0 x 20.0 cm

Origin
Date
Late 13th century
Style
Genre
Content

Alexander romance is any of several collections of legends concerning the mythical exploits of Alexander the Great

Language
Illustrations

100 miniatures, gilt and silverwork

Short description

The Berlin Alexander Romance is a chivalric romance concerning the life of Alexander the Great, which was assembled from descriptions of true events and fantastic legends. The work originated at the end of the 13th century and contains over 100 magnificent miniatures. The Alexander Romance was the most beloved book of fold tales of the Middle Ages. The Berlin specimen of the book distinguishes itself through its elaborate illustration and lavish gold adornment.

Facsimile editions available

Description

Berlin Alexander Romance

Alexander the Great is considered to be one of the greatest conquerors in history. In only eleven years, from 334 to 323, he changed the entire world of antiquity. No person had ever conquered a vaster empire. The question of how Alexander the Great managed to leave behind such a lasting impact within such a short reign has been answered quite differently by historians over the centuries. Countless legends wrap themselves around the son of Philip II of Macedon and Princess Olympias, who was supposed to be a direct descendant of Zeus, father of the gods. The mythical heroes Heracles and Perseus are also supposed to have been Alexander’s forefathers and served as lifelong examples for the ambitious ruler. Thus, anecdotes about his encounter with Diogenes or his handling of the Gordian knot are still common knowledge today. Alexander was tutored by the famous philosopher Aristotle from the age of 13. Through Aristotle, he developed a deep interest in education, culture, and literature as well as scientific research. His unquenchable thirst for knowledge remained with him to his death. Alexander expanded the borders of the Macedonian Empire to India. When he marched into Egypt, he is supposed to have been greeted there as Pharaoh. The Hellenistic period, during which Greek culture was spread over wide areas of the then-known world, began with his ascension to power. Alexander became a beloved motif of art and literature because of his immeasurable political, military, and cultural-historical successes. The ruler enjoyed the most important literary reception through the so-called Alexander Romance.

The Alexander Romance and its Immense Importance

A variety of biographies about Alexander from antiquity and the Middle Ages with the term Alexander Romance portrayed the ruler’s great deeds in a fairytale-like manner. The Alexander Romance is based on a work by an anonymous Greek writer in three books. This work is based on countless ancient, novelistic sources that no longer exist, Alexander’s fictional letters, and fabulous legends and tales. During the Middle Ages, the work with its various versions was, aside from the Bible, the most well-known and widely circulated book in Europe and is represented in French, English, Slavic, as well as Old Norse literature. In the Orient, especially in Syrian literature**, Alexandrian material was already widely disseminated before the medieval period. The book was also received in the Islamic literary tradition, consequently, Alexandrian material is found in the Persian romance Iskandarnamah, a work by an anonymous 12th century Arab author.

An Ideal Ruler?

Even if the Alexander Romance created a portrait of the Macedonian sovereign that hardly conformed with reality, the portrayals of his life have had an unimaginable effect on its readers for centuries. Alexander was described as the model of the ideal ruler. He is wise and always knows how to act. No turn can surprise him, no matter how unexpected, no situation overburdens him, no matter how tricky. He is constantly proving himself to be an honorable and generous king who is benevolent and noble to all who are wretched. His victories do not make him cocky. He remains humble, honors the gods, always makes sacrifices, and declined to be venerated as a god himself. The historic source value of the great legend is quite small, and yet the romance was nevertheless counted among the most beloved books worldwide throughout the entire Middle Ages. This is because the book fulfilled all of the expectations that were placed on literature in a very special way. It helped to widen the world of the reader, allowing them to experience things that they never could have and taking them to lands that remained closed to them. This also includes the joy of magic and wonder because the individual versions were accompanied by wondrous stories. The great human achievements of the literary hero served as a role model for the reader. The book also contained numerous racy and romantic scenes, which no truly popular book can do without today.

The Berlin Alexander Romance

Before the invention of the printing press, the chivalric romance about Alexander the Great was the most commonly translated, most widely disseminated, and most read book of world literature. It was reworked countless times, almost all the specimens of the work are very diversely illustrated. The Berlin Alexander Romance is a translation based on a French version of the story. Berlin’s Histoire du bon roi Alexandre is counted among the most famous and precious adaptations of the book. This text originated from the end of the 13th century. The 168 lavishly designed pages are furnished with real gilt edges all around. Over 100 miniatures with lush gold embellishments adorn the splendid work. The pictures relate the fantastic round-the-world trip, of important battles, and of strange mythical creatures. Alexander encountered dragons, griffins, cyclopes, giant crabs, figures with horse heads, and humanoid cephalopods. In one place, Alexander ascends into the sky with the help of a daring construction carried by birds of prey; in another, he descends to the bottom of the ocean with a diving bell. The ancient legends about the great ruler were packaged into medieval garb here. Numerous captions comment on the scenes depicted, usually with a wink. In each case, the illustrations of the Berlin Alexander Romance belong among the most beautiful miniatures to be created in 13th century Europe.

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