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The Legend of Saint George and the Dragon

The tale of Saint George and the Dragon is widely depicted in Medieval art where the Christianised iconography of the horseman and dragon can be traced to early Cappadocian frescoes.  A thirteenth century narrative of the Saint George and the Dragon story, Jacobus da Varagine’s Legenda aurea from 1260, situates the legend in Libya, where a venom-spewing dragon was poisoning the countryside. To keep the dragon away from the village, the townspeople made offerings of two sheep daily, then a man and a sheep, an finally their children chosen by lottery. One day, the king’s daughter was chosen as the sacrificial child. The king offered all of his wealth to spare his daughter’s life but he villagers refused, sending the girl out to the pond where the dragon lived, dressed as a bride. By chance, Saint George arrived at the pond just as the dragon was emerging to eat the princess. Making the sign of the cross, Saint George charged the dragon and wounded it with a blow from his lance. He then wrapped the princess’s  girdle around the dragon’s neck and the pair walked the dragon into town where the villagers became terrified of the beast. Saint George offered to kill the dragon if the villagers agreed to convert to Christianity and most villagers, including the king, consented to be baptized. Imagery of the slaying of the dragon by Saint George can be found in early twelfth century Russian churches where the icon is known as ‘the miracle of George and the dragon.’  Western motifs of Saint George slaying the dragon appear in thirteenth century frescoes and Italian miniatures, and fourteenth century Book of Hours and in the Legende aurea manuscripts. Renaissance painters, including Donatello, Uccello, Tintoretto and Raphael, all painted depictions of Saint George and the Dragon in the fifteenth century. The legend and its moral and religious subject matter remained popular with artists into the 20th century, with representations by Peter Paul Rubens, Gustave Moreau, Giorgio de Chirico and Salvador Dali that continue to engage viewers.  

Lot 76 in our upcoming sale European Works of Art from the Collection of Luigi Pellettieri features an Italian depiction of Saint George and the Dragon, here flanked by angels and demons. Unlike what is referred to as the ‘concise’ composition, which shows only George and the dragon, this panel painting is referred to as a ‘detailed’ form. The detailed form usually includes the image of the princess, the village and spectators watching the event.

In this version the saint is shown with angel wings in the manner of Saint Michael, and shown on his feet rather than on horseback which also indicates the figure of Michael rather than George. The most common representation of Saint Michael is as a knight in armor, armed with a spear and slaying a dragon figure that symbolizes Satan. Saint Michael is the supreme archangel and is the defender of the Church, having defeated Satan during the war of angles at the time of Revelation. So while the image here has been ascribed to Saint George, it is very likely that it is, in fact, Saint Michael slaying Satan rather than Saint George slaying the Dragon. Another interesting element of this work is the gilded wood decoration attached to the surface of the panel which appears to be later than the panel itself, lending more mystery to the details of this interesting work.

Time & Location

European Works of Art in The Collection of Luigi Pellettieri
Thursday, July 15 at 11am

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