Young Alexander has a stormy affair with a kitchen maid named Phyllis. his teacher Aristotle thinks the boy should not waste his time on such trifles and has the two separated. As revenge, she seduces the old man, gets him to let her ride on his back, and of course makes sure they are seen.

This is how a longish German poem from the late 13th century tells the story. Older, slightly different versions exist as well, like this exemplum for preachers. Phyllis riding on Aristotle became a popular motif for two and a half centuries. You will find them as misericords in churches, as marginalia in manuscripts, on caskets, on tapestries, on prints.

But you’ll rarely find them as “serious” art. This painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, which sold in January 2008 for more than four million dollars, may be the only one by a major artist.

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