As I strolled about the Met, I came upon this piece, which I had never seen before. It’s called an Aquamanilia, a hollow vessel to hold water for washing hands during ceremonies sacred and secular. There are many examples of them in the Met, mostly in the form of animals or mythic beasts, but this one drew me up short and taught me something! A woman riding a man, in a medieval sculpture? And the man is none other than the great philosopher, Aristotle. (Aristotle was The Man for philosophy in the middle ages, despite his misfortune of having been born too early to be baptized a Christian. Dante consigned him to Hell’s First Circle, where the virtuous pagans had it fairly easy, only sighing in pain for their missed salvation.) Who is this dominatrix, Phyllis, who treats Aristotle like a sexual plaything?
It turns out that this image was quite popular then, and derives from a story that was also well known among the educated. In short, Aristotle, tutor to Alexander the Great, was warning his pupil against the distractions from greatness that women offered. He suggested that Alex dump his girlfriend Phyllis. She overheard this business and decided to get even. She seduces Aristotle, but refuses to yield fully until he puts on a saddle and lets her ride him around the yard. No, they weren’t prudish in their entertainments then. Aristotle is humiliated in front of his pupil, and he tries to laugh it off as some sort of object lesson on the dangers of women, but Alexander is not fooled. He reunites with Phyllis and forgives his revered teacher.
So many themes here, and I’m sure that contemporary feminists, social critics, and litsy-critsy cranks have had their way with it. I even found one of the images below on a site with links to fetish and bondage sites.