This illustration, created in ink and chalk by the Italian artist, Perino del Vaga (born Pietro Buonaccorsi, c. 1501–1547), re-creates a famous tale from the life of Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BCE). The image is historically set at Gordium, the capital city of ancient Phrygia, where Alexander passed through around the time of the winter season connecting 334 and 333 BCE. In that city of Gordium, there was an ancient item of legend and prophecy called the Gordian knot. This important knot, along with the remnants of the yoke and wagon it was attached to, was said to have dated back to the legendary namesake of the city, Gordius, who fathered the line that produced King Midas. The tale of the Gordian knot and its symbolic importance was recorded by the Roman historian Arrian (c. 90-173+):
“There was also another traditional belief about the wagon: according to this, the man who undid the knot which fixed its yoke was destined to be the lord of Asia. The cord was made from the bark of the cornel tree, and so cunningly was the knot tied that no one could see where it began or where it ended…Accounts of what followed differ: some say that Alexander cut the knot with a stroke of his sword and exclaimed, ‘I have undone it!’, but Aristobulus thinks he took out the pin—a sort of wooden peg which was driven right through the shaft of the wagon and held the knot together—and thus pulled the yoke away from the shaft” (Anabasis of Alexander, 2.3).
Perino del Vaga opted for the first version of the story in his illustration. Alexander is shown brandishing a blade while contemplating where to chop the legendary cord. By undoing the Gordian knot and identifying himself with prophecy, the episode was a great PR victory for Alexander, which helped him to cultivate his own burgeoning legend.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.