Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 19 D I. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Fun Fact

Alexander the Great depicted in Medieval Manuscripts

Foreword

Alexander the Great was a very popular hero in Medieval Litterature, nothing short of a Marvel or DC character. As a matter of fact his true story was slightly forgotten and casted away in favor of wonders and legends.

Here under you’ll find my personal best off of medieval illuminations telling the fabulous stories of Alexander the Great in various manuscripts. Expect this best off to grow over time!

How Alexander was Conceived

A great man can only have a great birth. It is said that Buddha was born he looked around and then took 7 paces in the direction of the 4 cardinal points. Just like that. He was born and he could already walk up straight.

The Legend of Alexander’s legendary birth however draws closer to Suetonius’ reported tale of Augustus’ birth [Suet., 12 Caes., 2:94]:

I have read the following story in the books of Asclepias of Mendes entitled Theologumena. When Atia had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colours like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.

Similarly, Alexander’s birth is linked to a divine figure of the Sun and results of a sexual act with a ‘serpent’. Well, in his case, it was no less than a dragon which got involved!

Nectanebus was an astrologer who predicted to queen Olympias of Macedonia that she’d be visited by Amon in the form of a dragon and that she would give birth out of their union. However, Nectanebus got tired of waiting and turned into a dragon and visited Olympias at night. According to that story, Alexander is therefore a bastard!

Why are you so shocked? So was King Arthur. Read Geoffrey of Monmouth [Hist. Reg. Brit., 8:19]:

After this victory Uther repaired to the city of Alclud, where he settled the affairs of that province, and restored peace everywhere. […] The Easter following he ordered all the nobility in the kingdom to meet, in order to celebrate that great festival, in honour of which he designed to wear his crown. […] Among the guests was present Gorlois, duke of Cornwall, with his wife Igerna, the greatest beauty in all Britain. No sooner had the king cast his eyes upon her among the rest of the ladies, than he fell passionately in love with her, and little regarding the rest, made her the subject of all his thoughts. She was the only lady that he continually served with fresh dishes, and to whom he sent golden cups by his confidants; on her he bestowed all his smiles, and to her addressed all his discourse. […] A whole week was now past, when, retaining in mind his love to Igerna, he said to one of his confidants, named Ulfin de Ricaradoch: “My passion for Igerna is such that I can neither have ease of mind, nor health of body, till I obtain her: and if you cannot assist me with your advice how to accomplish my desire, the inward torments I endure will kill me.” […]

Merlin, therefore, being introduced into the king’s presence, was commanded to give his advice, how the king might accomplish his desire with respect to Igerna. And he, finding the great anguish of the king, was moved by such excessive love, and said, “To accomplish your desire, you must make use of such arts as have not been heard of in your time. I know how, by the force of my medicines, to give you the exact likeness of Gorlois, so that in all respects you shall seem to be no other than himself. If you will therefore obey my prescriptions, I will metamorphose you into the true semblance of Gorlois […]; and in this disguise you may go safely to the town where Igerna is, and have admittance to her.” The king complied with the proposal, and acted with great caution in this affair; [then he] underwent the medical applications of Merlin, by whom he was transformed into the likeness of Gorlois. […] The king therefore stayed that night with Igerna, and had the full enjoyment of her, for she was deceived with the false disguise which he had put on, and the artful and amourous discourses wherewith he entertained her. […] She refused him nothing which he desired.

The same night therefore she conceived the most renowned Arthur, whose heroic and wonderful actions have justly rendered his name famous to posterity.

Oh, because you thought Jon Snow’s story and the ‘R + L = J’ theory was an original idea? You thought works of fiction never saw a bastard prince secretely being the actual heir to the throne prophesied to save or take over the world? Yeah. Sure!

Ever since Jesus, magical bastards that can survive or come back from death tend to be plentiful and rather generic. Yet we love them. We can’t help it.

Nectanebus Prophesies Alexander’s Birth

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 19 D I. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus and Olympias (London, British Library, Royal MS 19 D I, f. 3r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 15 E VI. Talbot Shrewsbury Book. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus addressing Olympias (London, British Library, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 6r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Olympias enthroned, with attendants, and Nectanebus in a white robe with a case of astronomical instruments (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 7r)

Nectanebus Lays with Queen Olympias

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Harley MS 4979. Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance.
Nectanebus as a dragon and in bed with Olympias (London, British Library, Harley MS 4979, f. 11r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 19 D I. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus disguised as a dragon beside Olympias’s bed (London, British Library, Royal MS 19 D I, f. 4v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 15 E VI. Talbot Shrewsbury Book. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus and Olympias in bed (London, British Library, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 6r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus practicising enchantments on Olympias, who lies in bed (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 8v)

Nectanabus Keeps Flirting in the Shape of a Dragon

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Harley MS 4979. Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance.
Nectanebus as a dragon kissing Olympias at King Philip’s feast (London, British Library, Harley MS 4979, f. 12v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 19 D I. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus as dragon kissing Olympias (London, British Library, Royal MS 19 D I, f. 4v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 15 E VI. Talbot Shrewsbury Book. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose. Prose Alexander-Romance
Nectanebus as a dragon at Philip’s table (London, British Library, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 6v)

The Legend Refuted

As the 15th century went by and the Renaissance grew closer, scholars were tired to see fables get the better of the nobility’s knowledge of History. Vasco de Lucena decided to refute the legends regarding Alexander the Great and to translate Quitus Curtius Rufus’ biography of the Macedonian king. Nevertheless, his erudite translation was illustrated with well-known legendary tales. His work states how Alexander the Great couldn’t be born from a dragon. Vasco de Lucena even goes as far as to quote the Holy Scriptures to do so. Yet, the illuminations made to embellish several of the manuscripts containing his work still act as reminders of Nectanebus’ fabled fatherhood.

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. BnF, français 257. Quinte Curse. Vasco de Lucena. Life of Alexander.
Birth of Alexander the Great (Paris, BnF, fr. 257, f. 1r)

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Alexander battles monsters on his way to India

“Go West, young man!” did they say in 19th century Northern America. During the European Middle Ages, however, it was more like “Go East, young man!” And so did Alexander. Did he expect to face dragons, giants and other monsters on his way to conquer India? As you can see, he seemed pretty well prepared, even to meet naked damsels in the woods!

Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander battles with dragons (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 49v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander battles with white lions (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 50v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander driving off elephants with pigs and musical instruments (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 57r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander meeting women of the forest (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 58v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander fighting against dragons with emeralds in their foreheads (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 73r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander fights with horse headed men (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 79r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander fights with one eyed giants (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 79v)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Fights with headless men with faces on their torsos (Blemmyae) (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 80r)
Illuminated Manuscript. Alexander the Great. British Library. Royal MS 20 B XX. Le Roman d’Alexandre en prose.
Alexander fighting with two-headed dragons (London, British Library, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 83v)

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