Dating from the 1290s, the Brussels Alexander Romance is one of the earliest copies of the Old French prose biography of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) based on the Latin Historia de Preliis Alexandri Magni. Created in northern France, probably Thérouanne, it features ninety-four miniatures framed in gold and with backgrounds of sumptuous gold or diaper patterns and boasting an array of bright colors.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Alexander the Great was the subject of literary works in both prose and verse in Latin, Greek, and numerous European vernaculars. The French text of the Brussels manuscript was created in the second half of the thirteenth century and was widely popular in courtly circles.
Descending into the Depths of the Sea
One incident that receives special prominence is Alexander's descent into the depths of the sea in a glass submersible barrel-like vessel equipped with lamps so that the king could observe life underwater (fol. 70v). Nearly dominating the entirety of the page, the miniature shows the enterprising ruler, his crown and cushion highlighted in gold, in his vessel on the floor of the sea amid a swirling variety of underwater fauna, including fish shaped like humans that gather nourishment from underwater plants.
Abundant Pen-Flourished Initials
The text of the adventures of the daring ruler is written in two columns in a neat Gothic Textualis script. Alternating red and blue two-line initials with pen flourishing in the contrasting color mark each section, while miniatures (often spanning both columns) highlight individual episodes. The paintings chronicle the exotic encounters, grand constructions, and clamorous battles that enraptured generations of the legendary king’s admirers.
One of Four
The Brussels Alexander Romance is one of four manuscript copies—which include the Berlin Alexander Romance—of the romance created in the 1290s in northern France. They boast similar picture cycles, with correspondences in the choice of scenes illustrated and in iconographic details, although none served as the direct model for any of the others.
A Gem in the Most Illustrious European Collections
Clearly made for a member of the courtly elite, the manuscript continued to grace prestigious collections in the early modern period, including those of Margaret of Austria (1480-1530), Regent of the Netherlands, and Maria (1505-1558), consort of Louis II, King of Bohemia and Hungary. It entered the Burgundian ducal library in 1550. Stamps of the Bibliothèque nationale (fols. 1r and 86v) demonstrate that the manuscript was among those seized by Napoleonic troops in 1794. Restored in 1815, the manuscript has been in Belgium ever since.