Paolo Uccello, St George and the Dragon, about 1470, National Gallery, London.
It is now two weeks since St George’s Day, and I did say I was going to tell you the full story – at least, the full story as I know it. In the full story St George gets killed several times, and at one point, I believe, is even chopped up into tiny bits and scattered across the land, only to come back to life. In this, he is related to the Green Man, a symbol of fertility, and inevitably to the idea of death and resurrection – new life being especially important around the end of April when he is celebrated. But today, I just want to talk about the dragon.
We make certain assumptions about dragons which weren’t common in Paolo Uccello’s day, as we can see from this painting. His source material would have been the Golden Legend – which I have mentioned before (Picture Of The Day 31 & 36), and will mention again tomorrow. We tend to think that dragons live in caves, and breath fire. But that’s not what the Golden Legend said about this one. Apparently, it lived in a large lake, and its breath was so toxic that if you breathed it you would die – it spread the plague. Basically, in future you should remember to stay at least 2m away from any dragon – although personally I would avoid them altogether.
Uccello is slightly hedging his bets here, as there is a cave, but inside the cave, there is a lake, which seems to have some kind of whirlpool in it – you can see it on either side of the Princess’s shoulders. While we’re talking about assumptions, the other assumption that we commonly make is that princesses are scared of dragons, and need rescuing, but that really doesn’t seem to be the case.
If anything, she looks like she has put the dragon on a lead, and is minding her own business taking it for a walk, when St George has charged up and stabbed it through the head with his lance… She looks mildly irritated, gesturing towards it with a feeble look of dismay. In her place I would be furious. The dragon is clearly suffering – the head being lowered is surely a bad sign, although my understanding of the body language of dragons is sadly limited. But it is bleeding, and a pool of blood is gathering on the ground. Uccello is playing all sorts of games here. One is the pigment: there is a pigment called ‘dragon’s blood’ which was used for red paint, although this red is different. ‘Dragon’s blood’ came came from the resin of a tree, and I have always imagined it dripping down and forming puddles in the forest just like this. I’m not convinced that’s how it works, but Uccello does use the pigment elsewhere – in his other painting in the National Gallery, for example, the Rout of San Romano, where it colours the hat of Niccolò da Tolentino. He is also playing with the idea of feet – the princess’s shoes are of the same red as the dragon’s blood – and very pointy. It is as if her feet were equivalent to the dragon’s talons. Have a look round the painting – there are all sorts of pointy things, including the toes of George’s armour, and the dragon’s fangs: indeed, its open mouth is rather similar to the wide, craggy mouth of the cave. There are also a large number of circular elements – from the whirlpool in the cave, the strange cloud formation in the sky (which no one has ever explained satisfactorily) and the curious crescent moon, to the plates on St George’s armour, and the RAF targets on the dragon’s wings. It seems to be trying to get in on the Englishness of it all (not that Uccello would have known anything about that) – given that St George’s horse is white, and it has red trappings, forming the cross of St George (or as I explained in POTD 36, the Flag of Christ Triumphant) all over it.
Another curious feature is the grass, which appears to be growing in unnatural squares. The fact is, Uccello was slightly obsessed with perspective – Vasari certainly thought so, telling a story in which Paolo referred to perspective as his new mistress, to the extent that he wouldn’t go to bed with his wife. Perspective is fine if you have an avenue of trees, or a train track (which Uccello obviously didn’t), or even a tiled floor, as Donatello did yesterday (POTD 49), but if you’re outside in the countryside, how can you show parallel lines getting closer together? Uccello seems to have decided that the best way to do this was to invent astroturf, and lay the grass in squares.
But apart from that, what is going on? Well, the people of Silene, in Syria (you may remember that the Golden Legend moves George from Cappadocia to Syria – he got around), were being persecuted by this dragon, and, long story short, decided to do a deal with it: they would send two sheep every week. Unfortunately, the sheep ran out, so they decided to send a person instead. Lots were drawn every week, and the person who drew the short straw was sent off to be eaten, a system which seemed to work reasonably well, unless of course, you were the one to get eaten. That was until the Princess drew the short straw, and her father, the king, refused to let her go. I imagine he was planning on marrying her to a handsome prince so that they could live happily ever after – whether she wanted to or not. Eventually, after a while, the dragon started to get hungry and came closer to Silene, at which point the people panicked because they thought they were all going to die from the breath of the dragon. Rather than rushing off into self-isolation, they all rushed to the king, and protested that, as their children had been eaten, so should his daughter be. As the king was about to pull out his Trump card, and say that his daughter was supposed to marry a handsome prince (who would also, I’m guessing, handle the King’s business portfolio), his daughter piped up and said ‘No’! It was better that she should be eaten, than that everyone else should die from the breath of the dragon. So she headed out to die, and at that moment, St George happened by (the Golden legend really does say it like that). At this point, you may be thinking, she would swoon, recognising a Knight in Shining Armour when she saw one, and beg him to save her life. Oh no! Not this princess! She asked him what he was doing there, to which he replied ‘I have come to save you from the dragon’. Now, although she suggested that there really was no point in both of them dying, as that is surely what would happen, he stuck to his guns, repeating ‘I have come to save you from the dragon’ in a needlessly macho way, and an argument ensued. Eventually St George did what men tend to do – which is do what they wanted to do in the first place. He took out his lance and ran it through the dragon’s head. Fortunately lances are longer than 2m.
At this point, he asked the princess to take off her belt. “But we’ve only just met’, she replied. No, sorry, the Golden Legend doesn’t say that, that was a different story. He asked her to take off her belt and tie it round the dragon’s neck – which she did. At which point (and the Golden Legend really does say this) it lifted up its head and followed her like a little dog. I have two things to point out before we go any further: (1) that is why she looks like she has the dragon on a lead. It is another example of a continuous narrative, with two parts of the story being shown at the same time (i) St George is dealing the dragon a non-fatal blow and (ii) the princess has tied her belt around the dragon’s neck. He has not yet, however, lifted up his head. (2) She is still wearing a belt. From this I assume that any self-respecting princess will always go out with a spare belt. Own up, ladies, I know you’ve all done it.
From thence they headed back to Silene, at which point the inhabitants really did socially distance and ran back home, terrified that they would all die, but somehow the breath was no longer so toxic. They did, nevertheless, scream from their windows, asking George why he was bringing the dragon into their midst. He proclaimed that God had sent him to save them from the dragon, and that if they converted to Christianity, then he would slay it. ‘And on that day, many thousands of people were baptized…’ it says. And the dragon was slain.
I’ve never been happy with this ending, as it is blatantly blackmail. And also, the poor dragon dies. It was only doing what dragons are supposed to do. Although, of course, it was only ever a symbol in the first place – and we all want good to triumph over evil. So remember: keep 2m away from everyone (but don’t carry your lance around in public as a measure, it might be misconstrued), and remember to wash your hands. And if you want to avoid dragon breath, maybe brush your teeth as well.