Dictionary of Art and Artists


that Changed the World


  Lascaux Caves Manesse illuminated Massys Callot Friedrich Picasso
  Tutankhamen's tomb Lorenzetti Grunewald Rembrandt Constable Matisse
  Europa and Minotaur Karlstein Castle Baldung Claude Lorrain Delacroix Marc
  Banquet Tomb Limbourg brothers Altdorfer Velazquez Turner Kandinsky
  Pompeii Van Eyck Cranach Vermeer Ingres Monet
  Birth of Christianity Della Francesca Holbein Rigaud Manet Chirico
  Hagia Sophia Uccello Titian Watteau Burne-Jones Modigliani
  Book of Kells Mantegna Bruegel Canaletto Seurat Chagall
  St Benedict Botticelli Vicentino Boucher Van Gogh Kahlo
  Bayeux Tapestry Anonymous Arcimboldo Fragonard Toulouse-Lautrec Dali
  Donizo manuscript Durer El Greco Gainsborough Munch Ernst
  Liber Scivias Bosch Theodore de Bry John Trumbull Cezanne Hopper
  Carmina Burana Da Vinci Caravaggio David Gauguin Bacon
  Falcon Book Michelangelo Rubens Gros Degas Warhol
  Giotto Raphael Brouwer Goya Klimt  

From Lascaux to Warhol

Supreme art is a traditional statement of certain heroic and religious truth,
passed on from age to age, modified by individual genius,
but never abandoned.

William Butler Yeats




The Pagan Dragon

An evil beast



George mounted his steed, made the sign of the cross and charged the dragon that was advancing towards him; he brandished his lance mightily, commended himself to God and struck the dragon with such force that it fell to the ground.

Jacobus de Voragine, Legends aurea (Golden Legend), 1265-66



Still with Paul Richter as the dragon-slaver Siegfried in Fritz Lang's Nibelungen, 1924



According to legend, in the second century ВС there lived a dragon in a lake near the city of Silene in the land of Libya. It often crawled from its wet home "to beneath the city walls" — or so it was claimed in the Legenda aurea — translated into English by William Caxton in 1485 as the Golden Legend— the most frequently read book in the Middle Ages with the exception of the Bible. There, the beast was said to have poisoned with its breath all those who came near it. To appease the dragon, a lamb and one human victim were sacrificed every day. A lot was drawn to determine "which man or which woman should be offered to the dragon". One day the lot fell to the king's daughter, Sabra, who bravely accepted her fate for the benefit of the city. However, just as she was ready to make her way to the lake, her altruistic intentions were dampened when "Saint George came riding up as if by chance" and asked her why she was so sad. Suddenly, the dragon appeared. George valiantly pierced it with his lance — though he did not kill it. As legend has it, George proceeded to wrap the princess's girdle round the wounded beast's neck and to lead the dragon triumphantly like a tame dog into the city, where he slew it with a single blow of his sword. George was subsequently celebrated as a hero and the dragon was never to be seen again.

In antiquity the scaly, fire-spitting beast was thought to possess demonic, primordial powers. It was said that the gods had to fight and kill the monster before the world could emerge from the animal's dead body. In Christianity the legendary winged creature came to symbolise sin and paganism. Described in Revelation as a symbol of the devil and elsewhere in the Bible as a demon of temptation, the dragon still flits like a ghost through the pages of the Old and New Testaments. Likened to a diabolical serpent by the biblical scholar Origen in the third century AD, the legendary green monster was not met with sympathy in Europe or in the Near East, but was repeatedly depicted as being "trample [d] under feet" (Revelation). Yet there were others besides St George who were renowned dragon-slayers: St Michael, St Margaret, the prophet Daniel of the Old Testament as well as Siegfried, the legendary hero of the Nibelungenlied, who bathed in the blood of the vigilant dragon, presumably to render himself immune from injury.

Indeed, no one seemed to show mercy on the tormented animal — except Paolo Uccello, a Florentine painter who staged the present scene like a romantic fairy-tale with an ironic undertone. Kept on a short lead by the princess, the fearsome beast is made a pitiful, almost amusing spectacle; with its curled tail and contorted stance, it looks more like a caricature than a monster. Here, the unfortunate animal appears to be having a tooth extracted, which, according to other sources, never occurred.

Despite the widespread feelings of fear and disgust towards the dragon in Europe and the Near East, in the Far East it was held to be a beneficent creature that brought good luck.

Paolo Uccello
St. George and the Dragon
c. 1456
Oil on canvas, 57 x 73 cm
National Gallery, London


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