Saturday, January 12, 2008


The story of St. George's exploits appears in Jacobus de Voragine's thirteenth-century bestseller, The Golden Legend, a collection of saint-legends. In a nutshell, the story is this: In Silene (present-day Libya), there was a poisonous dragon who could only be appeased by offering it human flesh. One day the lot fell on the king's daughter, and she was sent to the dragon's cave for brunch. St. George happened by on the way from his hometown of Cappadocia (Persian: Katpatuka: land of beautiful horses). After discovering the problem, he raced off to the dragon and injured it, after which the princess led the humbled beast back to town at the end of a short leash. St. George then convinced everybody in the city to be baptized, after which he finished off the wounded dragon. It a story about good triumphing over evil.

The above Woodcut shows the scene of Cadmus and the dragon.

The dragon-slaying story had other roots, as well. The St. George story also may have descended from story of Cadmus and the dragon: after finding a nice spot to build a city (Thebes), Cadmus went to fetch water from the well of Dirce, where he slew a dragon dear to Ares. He sowed its teeth in the earth, and out sprang a gaggle of angry fighting men who promptly killed each other (except for 5, who helped him build the city). Cadmus, to atone for killing the dragon, had to be Ares' servant for 8 years before becoming the first king of Thebes. Later, he and his wife were transformed into serpents as a final punishment for killing Ares' darling serpent. In the mids of Italian Renaissance artists, the story of St. George was surely related to the Book of Revelations, where St. Michael the Archangel defeats the serpent Satan in an apocalyptic battle.
Raphael's Michael turns a lovely pirouette on the neck of the serpent-Satan.
The story was of great importance to Italian Renaissance artists. Like the story of David and Goliath, it represented an underdog victory, which had political resonance in the recently triumphant Florence. But more importantly it illustrated the Renaissance ideals of reason triumphing over the bestiality of Nature--the triumph of Order over Chaos. In all of them, the long phallic lance is an important symbol of the male ego opposing the wildness of the the natural world.

Occasionally, as in the case (above) of Leonhard Beck's murdered mother and child, the dragon is feminine, and St. George represents male chastity trampling on unbounded female sexuality. His overcoming represents the overcoming of natural desire and the binding of sexuality within the Church-sanctioned bonds of marriage. The role of the rescued princess is pivotal in this reading: she ‘chooses’ to be with St George rather than the dragon, and in some late medieval versions she is offered to him as a bride. He refuses, of course (he is a representation of chastity, after all), but her future role is clearly indicated--she will be a safely-married woman, not a dangerous, single, sexual female like the dragon. Like Michelangelo's famously female serpent in Eden, the serpent-dragon was a symbol of Mother Nature's poisoned gifts.
Beginning in at least the fourteenth century, the traditional image of St. George and the dragon was of beautiful muscle-toned horse rearing up, shining and impassive St. George gripping a long lance and impaling the ferocious dragon's neck like a piece of butter, often with a lovely princess hanging about somewhere in the vicinity, either distressed with the violence of the apocalyptic battle or, more often, calm in the purity of her prayer. St. George was encased in his ego-armor, his intricately articulated shell of persona. George's armor, finely wrought as a Greek torso and burnished to emphasize it's surface, exalts intellectual beauty over the formlessness of nature.

Raphael's famous image, complete with a very happy horse, is a good example of the Apollonian/Italian view of the story.

Carpaccio returned to the subject several times throughout his life; here is his gory scene with a frightening dragon.
Uccello's wonky two-legged dragon.

As the Italian influence began to creep northward, other artists began to turn to the story as an artistic subject. Generally, a very Italian approach was adopted, albeit within the traditions of Northern art.

Albrecht Durer depicted St. George wearing shining armor (and even a halo!), mounted on a mighty, bodybuilding horse.

Lucas Cranach's polished St. George kills his demonic, bug-eyed dragon without soiling his shoes.

Bernt Notke (a German painter/sculptor) presents an absolutely spectacular Swedish victory sculpture, commissioned by the royalty of Sweden to commemorate their military supremacy over rival Denmark. Made of painted wood, it features a hideously frenzied dragon and a golden St. George.

Albrecht Altdorfer created a wonderful print with a flamboyantly befeathered George slaying a mean-looking beast with a distinctly female torso.
All of the above images are in keeping with the Italian view of the story--George and his horse are bright and pure (their killing is generally rather dainty), while the dragon is a monstrous foe who could snap off the horse's legs if he got a chance. But the last artist I mentioned, Altdorfer, went on to create a fascinating image whose interpretation deviates dramatically from his Italian models.
Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480-1538) studied the art of Cranach, Durer, and Mantegna. Like Durer, he studied in Italy and was fascinated by the Italians' figural ideas. He became more and more Italian throughout his career, and even tried his hand at fresco. But his natural affinity was for landscape, and the raging beauty of the southern German countryside. Landscape tends to overpower figures. His genius responded most vividly to the world of weeds and roots, of looming trees and massive cliffsides--it is the same southern German landscape which so richly informs the tales of Grimm, which were likely circulating in early forms at this time. Altdorfer's is perhaps the first European art since prehistoric times to concern itself directly with mysterious powers of the vegetable underworld--the epic grandeur and monstrosity of inhuman Nature. Altdorfer's art is tortured by a tension between the wildness of German landscape, Nature's ferocious spread, and the refined Italian figural tradition, which he admired but never truly made his own.
This fascinating dichotomy is evident in Altdorfer's 1510 masterpiece, St. George in the Forest. Almost the entire panel is filled with the ferocious wildness of the forest, from which the lumpy, froglike dragon seems to emerge, slobbering with primordial slime. In a little window where the trees open, the light of the outside world burns through. St. George, in contrast to the vibrant Italian imagery we have seen, is not in the act of killing the dragon—rather, he seems to be looking down on it with pity. His lance hangs limply at his side. Altdorfer's George looks tired, his armor is dingy, and the horse seems to shrink back in disgust at the sight of the formless, murky dragon. The figures become lost in the ferocious foliage (ferocious like the dragon traditionally should be) which threatens to choke out the figures themselves (who should traditionally be the focus), and they all seem to merge into monochrome. The knight seems to be musing on something within himself which he knows he must slay in order to leave the dark forest of the unconscious and emerge into the distant light of the ego-world. His armor glints dully, the fragile boundary of his blurry persona. The princess is nowhere to be seen, so what is the purpose of this "battle?"
The "battle" is taking place not on an Italian stage, but in the thick woods of southern Germany, or, more accurately, in the the strangling thickets within George's own wounded soul. Cadmus' destiny was to become a serpent one day--he already had serpent qualities within himself before he slew Ares' beloved pet. Like Cadmus, George must overcome the chthonian aspects of his own nature so that he might emerge intact, able to build a city of Order. It is not an easy task, nor is it a glorious one. Rather, it takes place when George is up to his knees in primeval muck. Cadmus was haunted by his decision for the rest of his life. The name "George" is derived from the Greek words for "earth" (ge) and "work" (ergon), making "George" a tiller of the soil. Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend describes St. George as a "holy wrestler," and goes on to say, "So George is to say as tilling the earth, that is his flesh."
Altdorfer's genius was to internalize the Apollonian drama of the Italian St. George, altering the setting from the opera stage to the choked swamps of George's inner life. It is a movement from the ornate outwardness of Catholic iconography to the inward individual consciousness of Protestantism. By removing the apparent motive for the battle, Altdorfer forces us to reinterpret what exactly is happening. Altdorfer's St. George is struggling with his murky inner trolls--he is loath to kill them, and his only prize is a private one. George the holy wrestler is tilling his own flesh.


MattM said...

Interesting thoughts, Steve. Have you tied this story to Leviathan in Psalms at all? I wonder if the bookending of Creation and the Millennial day might be well represented through a story such as this.



अर्जुन said...

The lance and the dragon, the straight and the wiggly, the prickles and the goo.

David Apatoff said...

What a delightful, literate and sensitive (not to mention comprehensive) catalog of the images of the St. George legend! Did you happen to write a master's thesis on this subject or something?

I enjoyed reading this and considering the various layers you have pointed out. I am always uncertain, looking back at such art through the modern prism of Freud, how much of this sexual imagery and phallic symbolism was supposed to be intentional and how much was subliminal. Are you aware of any contemporaneous material to suggest that these artists were using such symbols deliberately?

Thanks for an extremely entertaining read. I will enjoy following this string and looking at other posts on your blog.

Steve Morrison said...


Thanks so much for visiting! I'm glad you found the post entertaining, and I'm flattered that you'd think it was a thesis topic. It's just some thoughts and research from Google, however.

As far as contemporary sources to back up the imagery--I have none. It's more my own subjective response to the works, informed by my 21st century worldview and background. I rather think that such symbolic images come largely from the unconscious of the artist, or perhaps just that of the viewer. But I feel it adds to the experience of the piece nonetheless.

Again, thanks for your original post and your amiable comments here!