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Alexander and his Doctor

February 17, 2010

Alexander and his Doctor, about 1648-9, Eustache Le Sueur

According to classical anecdote, Alexander the Great suffered from mysterious maladies and from his own mystique. No one dared to treat him for fear that a bad outcome would doom the would-be healer to certain persecution by Alexander’s wildly solicitous minions. Finally, Phillip, Alexander’s physician, frustrated by the young king’s decline, offered care in the form of a salubrious potion. But a general had already impugned Philip in a letter to Alexander, which claimed Philip to be acting seditiously on behalf of Alexander’s Persian enemies, and not to be trusted. Despite this warning, Alexander boldly drank the medicine, as he did so, handing the letter to Philip to read.

In the painting, Philip stands above a recumbent Alexander, as the doctor-patient relationship would demand. But Alexander’s broad chest and raised eyes reveal his power, while Philip’s stooped posture and frown expose the frailty of his position. The painting reveals, perhaps unwittingly, the vital duality of the relationship, each risking himself, proffering his full commitment to the other. Here the physician assumes the role of servant rather than patriarch, though his experience and wisdom are evident.

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