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Sunday, 28 June 2015

Dragon Slayers

I didn’t specifically set out to take pictures of dragon slayers last Wednesday, but by the end of the day I realized I had five of them. Together with another four photos I already had, I decided that was enough for a blog post!

There are plenty of dragon-slaying legends, many of them symbolizing the triumph of good over evil. In this sense the ultimate dragon-slayer must be St Michael – the Biblical archangel who defeats “the great dragon, the primeval Serpent, known as the devil or Satan” (Revelation 12:9). Three versions of this story are depicted above. The one in the middle is a picture I took in the Louvre in Paris two years ago, which featured previously in my post Monsters, Mystery and a Monkey. It’s an early work by Raphael, dating from around 1504.

The other two pictures I took in the National Gallery in London last week. The one on the left is by another Italian painter, Piero della Francesca, and dates from 1469. It’s less dramatic than Raphael’s version, and the dragon looks... well, unimpressive to say the least. The picture on the right was painted the previous year, 1468, by the Spanish artist BartolomĂ© Bermejo. His dragon is the weirdest-looking of the three – the caption describes it as “a monstrous creature, part-reptile, part-bat”.

The other saintly dragon slayer that everyone has heard of is St George (who is the patron saint of England, despite having no historical or legendary connection with the country). The story of George and the Dragon is essentially a Christianized version of the archetypal dragon-slaying legend (cf. my earlier post on Dragons and Dinosaurs), in which a community regularly appeases their local dragon by feeding it young female virgins. Then they suddenly realize the next in line is the King’s daughter, so it’s time to find themselves a dragon-slayer.

Here are three pictorial versions of St George and the Dragon, all by Italian artists:
The one at top left is by Raphael again – it’s a companion piece to his picture of St Michael and hangs next to it in the Louvre. To its right is a later version (circa 1555) by Tintoretto, which I saw in the National Gallery last week. Interestingly this reverses Raphael’s perspective – it has the fleeing princess in the foreground while St George, on horseback, fights the dragon in the background. I think Tintoretto’s version is much more dramatic – a kind of High Renaissance version of a “damsel in distress” pulp magazine cover!

The third picture is also in the National Gallery. It’s by Uccello, dating from around 1470, and has a more cartoony look than the other pictures. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is the strange (and rather Fortean-looking) atmospheric phenomenon looming in the background behind St George.

A less well known dragon-slaying legend is that of Apollo and Python. The latter was a giant serpent-like dragon in Greek mythology (after which the snake genus was named), which according to legend was slain by the god Apollo. I have to admit I’d never heard of this legend until I saw Turner’s painting of it in the Tate Gallery last week (I’ve been rude about Turner in the past, but he’s started to grow on me since I saw the film Mr Turner).

At first sight Turner’s “dragon” looks very snake-like, although if you look closely there is a huge claw-like hand visible. Basically it’s difficult to work out exactly what’s going on, which is a generic problem I have with most of Turner’s work (he painted two other “horror” pictures, one of Death on a Pale Horse and one of Sea Monsters, which are even more confusing).

Finally, here are a couple of mediaeval dragon-slayers from Somerset. The one on the left can be seen on the wall of the church in Stoke-sub-Hamdon, and was featured previously in my post on Dragon Symbolism. As I said in that post, it may be intended to represent St Michael, due to its proximity to a hill called St Michael’s Hill.

I saw the dragon-slayer on the right a few weeks ago in Wells Cathedral, on the wall of the staircase leading to the Chapter House. I don’t think he’s meant to be anyone famous – I’ve seen him described variously as a “peasant”, a “priest” or a “pilgrim”. With his right hand he’s holding one of the pillars which support the roof, while casually using his left hand to slay a small dragon with his walking stick!


Colin Jones said...

From the 11th to the 14th Centuries the patron saint of England was St. Edward The Confessor who'd actually been King of England so I don't know why he was replaced by the foreign St. George - but I also don't know why Scotland adopted St. Andrew who was one of the disciples of Jesus and obviously not Scottish. Perhaps the biggest mystery of all is why the Protestant countries of England, Scotland and Wales have patron saints anyway.

Andrew May said...

All good points, Colin. As to the last point, the various patron saints were established well before the Protestant Reformation, so maybe there was too much popular sentiment in favour of them for the powers-that-be to get rid of them. But the Welsh manage to venerate a local boy, in the form of St David, so I've no idea why England and Scotland can't do the same!

Kid said...

Because we're trailblazers, Andrew - that's why! Incidentally, in that last picture, I don't think he's supposed to be 'holding' the pillar, merely bracing himself against it while he whacks the dragon. In fact, looking closer, given that the hand looks as if it's further forward than his head, he might not even be doing that. Perhaps he's just striking a pose, as Madonna would say.

Andrew May said...

You may be right, Kid. When I said he was holding up the pillar, I was repeating something I'd read somewhere - in the Cathedral guidebook, I think. But he may just be bracing himself against it , as you say. But his hand is definitely touching the pillar (i.e. carved from the same stone), even though the perspective isn't obvious in the photo.

Kid said...

Yes, you're right, I can see that - but his hand doesn't LOOK as if it's reaching behind his shoulder, which (because of where his head is) it would have to if he was MEANT to LOOK as if he was touching the pillar. It sort of looks like, perspective-wise, his arm is in front of his head and body. Is that some repair to his face?

Andrew May said...

OK, I see what you mean now. But the statue dates from circa 1300 (I think) and ideas on anatomy and perspective were still quite primitive then. So it's really anyone's guess what they had in mind.

Yes, it looks like his face has been repaired with plaster at some stage.