Day 36 – St George

Bernt Notke, St George and the Dragon, c. 1483-89, Storkyrkan, Stockholm

My text for today is taken from Henry V, Act iii, line 1125:  ‘Cry “God for Harry, England and St George!”’

Happy Birthday Shakespeare! Happy St George’s Day! Ramadan Mubarak!

And while we’re about it, we should also remember the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes, both of whom were once said to have died on this day, 23 April, in 1616. Even given the fact that Cervantes is now generally said to have died on the 22nd, even if they had both died on 23 April 1616 they wouldn’t have died on the same day. I’ve gone into this before (Picture Of The Day 23) – Spain had been on the Gregorian Calendar for about 3 decades, and England wasn’t to adopt it until 1752, so even if they both died on 23 April they would have died 11 days apart… More interesting this year is the coincidence of St George’s Day and the start of Ramadan, especially given that one of the main reasons to invoke St George throughout history was what in contemporary terms would be called islamophobia, which could make things tricky, but I won’t let it. 

Still, as we are celebrating St George’s day today, I wanted to do it with a remarkable sculpture in Sweden by a ‘German’ artist. I say ‘German’, because Germany at the time was not a single nation state and in any case the Notke family came from Talinn (Estonia). However, he did most of his work in Lübeck, which is now in Germany. Nationality is a tricky thing, and boundaries even worse. After all, there is nothing ‘English’ about St George, apart from the fact that, like many of the English his origins lie elsewhere. Some of my ancestors came over with William the Conqueror, apparently, and St George came from Cappadocia. He was effectively Turkish, and counts among England’s most successful immigrants, coming over here and taking the jobs of our perfectly good English patron Saints, Edward the Confessor and Edmund. This happened at some time in the 1340s, during the reign of Edward III, but no one is entirely sure when. You may think that someone who is most famous for having killed a dragon was entirely fictitious anyway, but as there were churches dedicated to St George as early as the 4th Century – i.e. as soon as Christianity was legalised within the Roman Empire – there must have been someone on whom the legend was based. As for the dragon – well, I shall let you make your own minds up about that.

I was looking forward to seeing this particular sculpture at least twice this year, as I was supposed to be taking a group to Stockholm in June. We’ll be going next year instead, but to make up for it this year I’m going to talk about it now. It is the most remarkable thing, larger than life-sized, and, with its base, about 6m tall. The main sculptural group measures about 3.75m on its own, allowing plenty of space for St George, on horseback, and the Princess, on her separate battlements, to be suitably socially distanced. They are separate elements of an ensemble, some of which has sadly been lost. We’re not entirely sure how it used to fit together, nor exactly where it stood. We do know, however, that it was consecrated in 1489, and was commissioned by Sten Sture, who acted as regent after the death of King Charles VII of Sweden in 1470. Charles had married his mistress on his deathbed, and despite the fact that their son was then legitimised, he was not accepted by the Swedish Government – hence Sture’s regency. It is generally assumed that the sculpture was commissioned to celebrate Sture’s victory at the Battle of Brunkeberg in 1471, at which he defeated a Danish force: like Germany, the Scandinavian countries hadn’t yet settled themselves into the form we know today, and Sweden was trying to break free of Danish domination. It is said that Sture had taken an oath of allegiance to St George before the battle, and that his troops went to war singing hymns to this most international of saints. In this theory, the meaning of the sculpture becomes clear – the Princess, as Stockholm, is saved from the dragon (Denmark) by St George (Sture). However, another theory says that the sculpture was planned as part of a fundraising effort to launch a crusade against ‘the Turk’. Ironic, given George’s origins. But this would be the more common interpretation of the story. The Princess, dressed in a wedding dress, represents the Church, the Bride of Christ, who is saved from the dragon of Islam by St George – Jesus himself. Whatever the interpretation, though, it is, in some way, the triumph of good over evil, however you choose to allocate those qualities.

According to the documents Bernt Notke, to whom the sculpture is attributed, was a remarkably important artist – although very little of his work survives today. This sculpture is generally seen as his masterpiece, but it has had a rather chequered history, partly as a result of the restructuring of the church for which it was made. The Storkyrkan, or ‘Great Church’, is medieval in origin, but the altar, choir and crossing were rebuilt for the first time in 1550, at which point the Saint George was moved. It seems likely that it would have been behind the high altar – the plinth on which the drama takes place would have allowed it to be seen above what was a rather low altarpiece. This might explain why St George is not focussed on his foe, but looks out with a sense of distant, almost visionary, abstraction – and effectively, in our direction.

From directly in front there is a wonderful combination of heads – the dragon, spiky, twisted to our left, the horse, heroic, turns to our right, while St George, rapt, and above it all in more ways than one, faces forwards. His complexion is smooth, clear and innocent, expressive of his virtue, as he triumphs over the complex forms of the suffering beast. It is pointedly tormented, this dragon, and its angular spiky form would be a remarkable feat were it carved solely out of wood. It is predominantly wood as it happens – oak – but look again at its horns, its wings and some of its spines. Notke has thrown everything he can at this sculpture, including one of the most remarkable materials I’ve seen in any work of art: elk antlers. But then, in other parts of the work he also uses iron, leather, rope and hair, coins and jewels, all of which are integrated into the complex forms and then beautifully painted and gilded.

The splendour of George’s elaborate golden armour is contrasted by the bilious colours and contorted forms of the dragon, not to mention the human remains of its unfinished meals which are scattered around, together with a brood of baby dragons squirming unpleasantly in the rocky crevices. George has broken his lance in the dragon’s chest. The tip remains embedded, while the hilt lies alongside. The dragon defends itself by grabbing the horse’s belly, piercing it so that it bleeds. It is this gesture that allows Notke a remarkable feat of engineering – the horse is rearing up on its hind legs. Most of the weight of horse and rider is actually borne by a metal armament embedded in the dragon’s leg.

The Princess kneels separately, and was presumably meant to be separate from the start. The idea is derived from painting by Jan van Eyck, which sadly has not come down to us. But it was so well known in the 15th and 16thCenturies that in the 1580s or 90s Giovanni Stradano imagined the Flemish master working on it in his studio. Even here you can see the horse rearing, its weight helping George to thrust the spear into the dragon’s mouth The Princess kneels in prayer, devout and demure, on her own in the middle ground. Further back you can see the city of Silene, which the dragon had been terrorising. The story is told, as so many are, in the Golden Legend (see POTD 31), which relocates it to Libya. I quite like the idea of St George being a Libyan immigrant, but that’s another story, which I will tell you in full another day. Wherever it took place, the Princess left the city to be sacrificed to the dragon, so it doesn’t really make sense in Notke’s sculpture that she is kneeling in a castle (the inconsistencies of scale are irrelevant). Her current location is probably part of a later restructuring of the original elements. It seems more likely that the King, her father, would have been poking his head up above the battlements.

It might even have been Notke’s posthumous portrait sculpture of Charles VII, currently in Gripsholm Castle, which served this function.  So there would have been at least three elements to this particular work. The first was, naturally, St George and the Dragon. The second, some way off, would have been the Princess, with a sacrificial lamb (its always good to have a side dish – the people of Silene only started sending the dragon people to eat when they were running out of sheep). This leaves the King in his castle, which would presumably have been a little further away. How these were disposed is not clear, but it challenges the assumption of the contemporary art world that it invented the concept of the ‘installation’. Art which takes some of its meaning from the movement of the viewer within the space that the work itself occupies has been with us for as long as art itself. Indeed, it is an essential function of devotional art, whether painting, sculpture or architecture. This work was also, effectively, a performance piece: the figure of St George used to be removed every year on 10 October, the anniversary of the Battle of Brunkeberg, and carried in procession to the site of the victory.

As a ‘work of art’, it also had a number of different functions. A sculpture of St George and the Dragon, undoubtedly, but also a celebration of victory at the Battle of Brunkeberg – or an encouragement to give money to fight the forces of Islam, depending on which interpretation you want to take. It was also a reliquary. You can’t see it in these photographs, but St George has a medallion around his neck which was opened in 1866 by none other than August Strindberg (yes! the playwright, that master of misery! He was working as a librarian at the Royal Library at the time). Inside were some bones and a piece of parchment explaining that these were relics of St George himself. This makes its location behind the High Altar all the more likely, as this was the standard place for a church to display its most important relics. Most medieval shrines, including those of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury and St Edward the Confessor in Westminster, were behind the high altar. St Edward’s is there to this day, the only shrine to a Catholic Saint to remain intact in an Anglican Church. As a devotional image, memorial and reliquary St George and the Dragon is already fulfilling more functions than most sculptures, but there was one more. After the death of Sten Sture in 1503 he was interred somewhere within the base of the monument, which can only have served to strengthen his identification with St George – although he was subsequently reinterred elsewhere – twice.

When the church was restructured, the sculpture was moved. The base of the sculpture was decorated with a series of reliefs of the various martyrdoms of St George (he was killed three times, and came back to life twice…), and these were removed and turned into an altarpiece. At some point, the King was removed, and the Princess’s dress was cut down so that she (and the sheep) would fit onto the castle. In 1866 the main figures were taken to the Historical Museum, at which point Strindberg discovered the relics. It was returned to the church, although not to its original location, in the early 20th Century, and at this point the ‘altarpiece’ with the reliefs of the life and deaths of St George was re-purposed, or rather, returned to its original purpose, as the decoration of the base, to become a focus of National pride and tourist interest. It is truly unique, the work of a ‘German’ artist of Estonian heritage working in Sweden, depicting a man who came from Turkey but is best known through a story set in Libya, the patron saint of England, Portugal, Catalonia, Ferrara, Genoa, Beirut, Malta, Ethiopia, Georgia, the Palestinian territories, Serbia and Lithuania. So, as I said at the start, Happy Birthday, Shakespeare, Happy St George’s Day, and Ramadan Mubarak! At the moment the threat does not come from other people, it comes from a virus. The world is a complicated place, and all we have to do for the time being is to stay at home, although now I’ve got to go out shopping. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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