April 23, 2013

St George's Day

        Today is St George's Day and therefore a good time to look at some depictions of the knight slaying the dragon.  The story of George and the dragon follows the pattern of any number of tales from mythologies all around the ancient world.  Dragon plagues population; it is to be appeased by human sacrifice; king balks when it comes time to sacrifice his child; warrior arrives to slay dragon and save the princess and the day.  In George's case the story also includes the conversion of the populace to Christianity.  In all such stories the dragon can be seen as an allegory of some great enemy of the people in question, and in the case of St George the dragon is most often interpreted as Satan or Evil.  That allegory doesn't satisfy me - I'm not much convinced by the idea of passively tolerating evil until someone else comes along and gets rid of all your evil for you after which all is spiffy.  But of course I'm happy to take George and the dragon at face value as a rip-roaring fantasy tale and an excuse for some fabulous art.  And of course of all the wonderful depictions of St George, I'm going to stick with block prints.
        Perhaps my favorite is the first woodcut shown.  This is a really great dragon!  The dragon and the horse are having a fierce staredown, the dragon is wonderfully spiky, and there's a great castle and delightful tree in the background.  What's not to love?  Like most depictions of St George before the Victorian era, he's shown wearing contemporary armor of the time, even though he was supposed to have been a Roman soldier.  Also, as in most depictions, the dragon isn't very big - though I admit it would still be a scary thing to find lurking near your home.
        George is shown in vaguely Roman garb in this Art Deco effort by Henri Van der Stock, but I find it more silly-looking than anything else.  Also, I don't care for the dragon, who looks so limp and scrambled that I can't even tell what's what.  I guess that's what you expect in a dragon after a saint has been at it, but I still prefer my dragons a little more ramping.
         I include another modern St George just for variety, although I confess to having little attraction to this piece, either.  George's weapon appears to be a cross between a pruning hook and a boomerang, and the dragon looks more like a plesiosaur.  Not that I have any intrinsic objection to the idea of St George going up against prehistoric marine reptiles, but the more abstract style just isn't to my taste.  Still, I like the use of the white hatchmarks and the darker blue shading on the horse and knight.
        So here's another Renaissance St George, this time with the technicolor addition of red ink , the better to depict George's famous red cross and, of course, the dragon's gruesome tongue and blood.  The princess is actually rather pleasant-looking, and I like the huge flowers in the meadow and the horse's fancy trappings.  The dragon's left hind foot is especially excellent - I can picture the terrifying footprints it would have been leaving around the stream.
        Since I generally find dragons more interesting than dragon-slayers I have a tendency to cheer for the dragon.  But St George is a good reminder that the important point is to stand up to monsters in whatever form they come.  As G.K. Chesterton said, "Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."

[Pictures: Slaying the dragon, woodcut from The Life of St George by Alexander Barclay, 1515 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
The Dragon Slayer, woodcut by Henri Van der Stock, c. 1910 (Image from William P Carl Fine Prints);
St George and the Dragon, color woodcut by Louis Schanker, 1941 (Image from Keith Sheridan Inc.);
Title page, woodcut from Constitutiones legitime sue legatine regionis anglicane, 1504 (Image from Washington University Law);
St George and the Dragon, woodcut with no info given (from Wikimedia Commons).]

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