This painting, by the Italian artist Giovanni Paolo Panini (c. 1692-1765), re-creates a famous tale from the life of Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BCE). The scene occurred during the winter season connecting 334 and 333 BCE, when Alexander reached a place called Gordium, the capital city of ancient Phrygia. In that city, there was an item of legend and prophecy that was too enticing for Alexander the Great to ignore. The object in question was the Gordian knot, a binding that—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 Greek-Roman historian, Arrian (c. 90-173+), described the prophecy that cropped up around the Gordian knot, as well as Alexander the Great’s actions regarding this artifact upon, his entrance into the city:
“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).
Giovanni Paolo Panini opted for the first version of the story in his painting. As depicted in the artwork above, Alexander has his blade drawn, ready to strike. In response, some of the bystanders understandably look distressed and uncomfortable with the impending destruction of the city’s much-beloved ancient artifact. Alexander the Great, however, holds out his hand to reassure them before he makes the decisive blow. In the end, Alexander’s outwitting of the formidable puzzle was a great PR victory, which helped cultivate his own burgeoning legend. Ironically, although the artwork and the story it tells was inspired by the story of the Gordian Knot, Giovanni Paolo Panini seemed to have been much more interested in painting the beautiful stone cityscape, dominated by pillars and arches. If the painting was divided into three horizontal segments, the depiction of Alexander and the Gordian knot are delegated to one section, whereas the remaining two-thirds of the painting are devoted to Panini’s detailed architecture.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.