The Romance of Alexander

A Journey to Strange Worlds in Gothic Images

London, The British Library, MS Royal 20 B XX

The Gothic Magnificence of Historical Events and Imaginative Adventures

Alexander the Great wrote world history when he went from Europe to Asia in the year 334 BC. His influence over antiquity, the Middle Ages, modern Europe, and the Orient is unparalleled. A very special, richly illustrated manuscript of the exciting life of Alexander was created around 1420/25 in Paris: The Romance of Alexander. Eighty-six miniatures framed in gold decorate almost every page of the manuscript. In all of the beauty of Gothic imagery, they tell the story of Alexander’s mythical heritage, his education under Aristotle’s tutelage, and of the famous battle against the Persian king Darius, and paint imaginative pictures of Alexander’s adventurous march to India.

From out of more than one hundred large golden initials arise decorative thorn leaves blazing in gold and generously surrounding the miniatures. With a total of ninety-seven pages measuring 28.4 x 19.5 cm, the illuminator, known as the Master of the Royal Alexander, created an illustrated book full of dramatic and wonderful illustrations that continue to enchant his readers, just as they did six hundred years ago.


Colourful Miniatures Bursting with Imagination and Originality

Landscapes, interiors, city panoramas, knights in battle, life at court, animals and mythical creatures—the many exciting episodes in the life of Alexander the Great offered the Master of the Royal Alexander a unique opportunity to express his creative talents in colourful miniatures. The wonderfully naturalistic images of horses and the detailed work on the sumptuously ornamented robes and armour are evidence of the illustrator’s skill and meticulousness. He took great care to paint each face individually and in detail, supplying the figures with lively body language. With a sure sense of dramatic presentation and a rich imagination he illustrated Alexander’s story—a story of an ancient hero who was considered a role model for medieval European knights and rulers.


The Romance of Alexander the Great: Medieval World Literature

Up until around the third century AD, a good five hundred years after Alexander’s death, myriad folk tales about the miracles and atrocities involving Alexander culminated in the Greek Romance of Alexander, which was disseminated in numerous translations and vernacular adaptations throughout the Middle Ages. Before Gutenberg, it was actually the most frequently read illustrated secular book ever! Without a doubt, the Romance of Alexander is one of the Middle Ages’ most magnificent Alexander manuscripts.


Alexander the Great – Role Models for Knights

The wealth of literature and the many works of European medieval art on Alexander closely connect Alexander and medieval court culture. Alexander was the perfect embodiment of all knightly virtues, and those who emulated him enjoyed great prestige. Thus, the Alexander romances were incorporated into the education of young princes, in order to set an example for them. The Romance of Alexander was probably also intended for a youthful recipient. Its large number of miniatures (86) and convenient size, the reader-friendly arrangement of the miniatures—most of them are at the top of the page—and the teacher-pupil relationship between Alexander and Aristotle shown in text and image might be indicative of this.


From the Estate of the English King Henry VIII

It is still not known who commissioned this lavishly illustrated manuscript. However, it had a famous owner in the sixteenth century, who must have prized it highly: the initials “HR” handwritten on the flyleaf stand for Henricus rex, or Henry VIII, the English king. In 1757 King George II donated the Old Royal Library to the British Museum. Its library became the British Library, where the Romance of Alexander has been preserved as a special treasure under the signature MS Royal 20 B XX.


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Der Pariser Alexanderroman, fol. 19v/20r

The Romance of Alexander at a glance

London, The British Library,
MS Royal 20 B XX

Made: approx. 1420/25
In: Paris
Format: approx. 28.4 × 19.5 cm
Extent: 194 pages (97 leaves)
Contents: Romance
Language: Old French
Artist: Master of the Royal Alexander

Provenance: In the sixteenth century the manuscript was in the Old Royal Library, which was the property of the English kings. The monogram “HR” refers to the manuscript’s owner, Henry VIII. In 1757 King George II donated the Old Royal Library to the British Museum. Later, the museum’s library became the British Library

The fine art facsimile edition of the Romance of Alexander (facsimile and commentary volume) has been published in summer 2014 by Quaternio Verlag Luzern and is available.

Price on request.