restricted access "El cabdal sepulcro": Word and Image in the Libro de Alexandre
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"El cabdal sepulcro":
Word and Image in the Libro de Alexandre

The first of two extant illustrations of the Libro de Alexandre (Alexandre), both found in the late thirteenth- or early fourteenth-century codex known as manuscript O, is a very simple drawing showing a statuesque Alexander the Great flanked by two groups of diminutive soldiers (fig. 1).1 The illustration, which occupies two thirds of fol. 45v under stanza 761,2 marks the end of a long passage in which Alexander recounts the story of the Trojan War to his [End Page 71] troops.3 In the poem, the king's retelling takes place after the Greek army has encountered the ruins of Troy and the sepulchers of their own ancestors who died during the city's siege. The most prominent of the tombs is Achilles's; it displays an epitaph that Alexander praises enthusiastically (sts. 330-332) only a few stanzas before launching into his rendition of the Trojan legend. The three elevated stones in the drawing in manuscript O, one in front of and one on each side of the king, represent Greek sepulchers and, according to David Ross, most probably Achilles's tomb (84).

Fig. 1. MS Vit. 5-10 (manuscript O), fol. 45v-46r.
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Fig. 1.

MS Vit. 5-10 (manuscript O), fol. 45v-46r.

The illustration provides a visual point of reference that allows the reader to easily locate the end of Alexander's long narration of the Trojan legend, as well as the beginning of the king's interpretation of the story (sts. 764-771). As Michael Agnew has rightly observed, the drawing acknowledges the centrality of Troy's story in the overall design of the poem (169). At the same time, it [End Page 72] offers an interpretation of the illustrated passage, tracing a clear connection between the king's retelling of the Trojan narrative and Achilles's sepulcher, found more than 400 stanzas above. The visual cue of the tomb is presented as inextricably intertwined with the oral performance of a key narrative, linking image and word as means of transmitting a crucial piece of memory.

The Greek hero's sepulcher is not the only tomb in the Alexandre to stand at the intersection of word and image. In fact, the two most spectacular monuments described in the poem are the tombs that Alexander erects for the Persian queen (sts. 1239-1249) and later for her defeated husband Darius (sts. 1791-1804), both of which are lavishly decorated with carved imagery. The creator of the sepulchers is an extremely skilled Jewish artist, Apelles, in Alexander's service.4 Apelles depicts scenes from biblical history on the queen's tomb, while on the king's he represents a world map. Both monuments are described through ekphrasis, a rhetorical device most clearly described as "the verbal representation of a visual representation" (Heffernan, "Ekphrasis" 299; Mitchell 152).5 Ekphrasis was a set piece in classical epic and as such was incorporated by the Alexandre's main source, Walter of Châtillon's twelfth-century Alexandreis, from which the two Persian sepulchers in the Castilian poem are derived. Extended descriptions of richly decorated objects were also a characteristic of another genre close to the Alexandre, the twelfth- and thirteenth-century Francophone romans antiques, where they became a staple.6

The presence in the description of the tombs of both the Persians and Achilles of verbal and visual elements -albeit in very different combinations- is not, I [End Page 73] believe, a matter of chance. On the contrary, this feature is connected with the sepulchers' monumental function, if we take monument in its etymological sense; one of the most important purposes of tombs is to preserve the fragile memory of things past. It seems therefore particularly befitting that the Alexandre's tombs offer a space where the relationship between the two media of word and image, which make possible the construction and transmission of memory, can be negotiated in textual and visual ways. This negotiation remains a particularly urgent task in a pioneering work such as the Alexandre, in which central narratives of the classical past are made accessible in an Iberian vernacular for...