Monday, January 29, 2007

Uccello`s St George and the Dragon

(b. 1397, Firenze, d. 1475, Firenze)
St. George and the Dragon
c. 1456
Oil on canvas, 57 x 73 cm
National Gallery, London

UCCELLO, Paolo (b. 1397, Firenze, d. 1475, Firenze)
St. George and the Dragon
c. 1456 [detail]

UCCELLO, Paolo (b. 1397, Firenze, d. 1475, Firenze)
St. George and the Dragon c. 1456 [detail]

The fantastic story is from a popular collection of saints's lives written in the 13th century, called 'The Golden Legend'. 'The Golden Legend' or 'Legenda Aurea' was written by Jacopo de Voragine, a Dominican friar who, in 1292, became Archbishop of Genova. 'The Golden Legend' was frequently copied and translated and, when printing was introduced, was still more popular. It was a highly important and accessible source for painters of religious subjects, especially for the lives of the saints.

In the translation by William Caxton of 1483, the legend of St George and the Dragon is described thus:

"St. George and the Dragon

St. George was a knight and born in Cappadocia. On a time he came in to the province of Libya, to a city which is said Silene. And by this city was a stagne or a pond like a sea, wherein was a dragon which envenomed all the country. And on a time the people were assembled for to slay him, and when they saw him they fled. And when he came nigh the city he venomed the people with his breath, and therefore the people of the city gave to him every day two sheep for to feed him, because he should do no harm to the people, and when the sheep failed there was taken a man and a sheep.

Then was an ordinance made in the town that there should be taken the children and young people of them of the town by lot, and every each one as it fell, were he gentle or poor, should be delivered when the lot fell on him or her. So it happed that many of them of the town were then delivered, insomuch that the lot fell upon the king's daughter, whereof the king was sorry, and said unto the people: For the love of the gods take gold and silver and all that I have, and let me have my daughter.

They said: How sir! ye have made and ordained the law, and our children be now dead, and ye would do the contrary. Your daughter shall be given, or else we shall burn you and your house.

When the king saw he might no more do, he began to weep, and said to his daughter: Now shall I never see thine espousals.

Then returned he to the people and demanded eight days' respite, and they granted it to him. And when the eight days were passed they came to him and said: Thou seest that the city perisheth.

Then did the king do array his daughter like as she should be wedded, and embraced her, kissed her and gave her his benediction, and after led her to the place where the dragon was.

When she was there St. George passed by, and when he saw the lady he demanded the lady what she made there and she said: Go ye your way fair young man, that ye perish not also.

Then said he: Tell to me what have ye and why weep ye, and doubt ye of nothing.

When she saw that he would know, she said to him how she was delivered to the dragon. Then said St. George: Fair daughter, doubt ye no thing hereof for I shall help thee in the name of Jesu Christ.

She said: For God's sake, good knight, go your way, and abide not with me, for ye may not deliver me.

Thus as they spake together the dragon appeared and came running to them, and St. George was upon his horse, and drew out his sword and garnished him with the sign of the cross, and rode hardily against the dragon which came towards him, and smote him with his spear and hurt him sore and threw him to the ground. And after said to the maid: Deliver to me your girdle, and bind it about the neck of the dragon and be not afeard.

When she had done so the dragon followed her as it had been a meek beast and debonair. Then she led him into the city, and the people fled by mountains and valleys, and said: Alas! alas! we shall be all dead.

Then St. George said to them: Ne doubt ye no thing, without more, believe ye in God, Jesu Christ, and do ye to be baptized and I shall slay the dragon.

Then the king was baptized and all his people, and St. George slew the dragon and smote off his head, and commanded that he should be thrown in the fields, and they took four carts with oxen that drew him out of the city.

Then were there well fifteen thousand men baptised, without women and children, and the king did do make a church there of our Lady and of St. George, in the which yet sourdeth a fountain of living water, which healeth sick people that drink thereof. After this the king offered to St. George as much money as there might be numbered, but he refused all and commanded that it should be given to poor people for God's sake; and enjoined the king four things, that is, that he should have charge of the churches, and that he should honour the priests and hear their service diligently, and that he should have pity on the poor people, and after, kissed the king and departed."

Uccello`s picture shows two episodes from the story of Saint George. He defeats or kills a plague-bearing dragon that had been terrorising a city. The rescued princess brings the dragon to heel (with her belt as a leash). The combining of two scenes with a connecting theme can be seen in Uccello`s scenes of The Flood which he painted in the cloister of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.

In the sky, a storm is gathering.

There is very little light. Is there an eclipse of the sun ? The scene is dark and ominous.

The strange patches of grass show Uccello's obsessive concern with linear perspective and his tendency to create decorative pattern.

Uccello was long thought to be significant primarily for his role in establishing new means of rendering perspective that became a major component of the Renaissance style. The 16th-century biographer Giorgio Vasari said that Uccello was "intoxicated" by perspective. Later historians found the unique charm and decorative genius evinced by his compositions to be an even more important contribution.

He worked in the Late Gothic tradition, and emphasised colour and pageantry rather than the Classical realism that other artists were pioneering. His style is best described as idiosyncratic, and he left no school of followers. The emphasis seems is less on the modelling of the figures, and they become points in a stylised geometric system of lines and cubes. Doll-like and colorful stylization are hallmarks of his later works.

The gothicising tendency of Uccello's art is nowhere more apparent than in this picture.

Vasari in his Lives of the Artists is critical of Uccello:

"[He] would have been the most gracious and fanciful genius that was ever devoted to the art of painting, from Giotto's day to our own, if he had laboured as much at figures and animals as he laboured and lost time over the details of perspective; for although these are ingenious and beautiful, yet if a man pursues them beyond measure he does nothing but waste his time, exhausts his powers, fills his mind with difficulties, and often transforms its fertility and readiness into sterility and constraint, and renders his manner, by attending more to these details than to figures, dry and angular, which all comes from a wish to examine things too minutely; not to mention that very often he becomes solitary, eccentric, melancholy, and poor, as did Paolo Uccello."

Again, according to Vasari, he delighted in painting animals:

"In the house of the Medici he painted some scenes on canvas and in distemper, representing animals; in these he ever took delight, and in order to paint them well he gave them very great attention, and, what is more, he kept ever in his house pictures of birds, cats, dogs and every sort of strange animal whereof he could get the likeness, being unable to have them alive by reason of his poverty; and because he delighted in birds more than in any other kind, he was given the name of "Paolo of the Birds" (Paolo Uccelli).

In the said house, among other pictures of animals, he made some lions, which were fighting together with movements and a ferocity so terrible that they appeared alive. But the rarest scene among them all was one wherein a serpent, combating with a lion, was showing its ferocity with violent movements, with the venom spurting from its mount and eyes, while a country girl who is present is looking after an ox made with most beautiful foreshortening. "

In this painting, the two animal figures: the Dragon and the Horse overwhelm and outshine the two human figures.

St George is all armour. One can only see a very very youthful face. The princess has two attributes highly prized by the medieval male: a long neck and a broad forehead. For all the commotion, she is totally without emotion or reaction to the scene unfolding a few steps away.

Again, as Vasari said:

"It was enough for Paolo to go on, according to the rules of perspective, drawing and foreshortening them exactly as they are, making in them all that he saw--namely, ploughed fields, ditches, and other minutenesses of nature--with that dry and hard manner of his; whereas, if he had picked out the best from everything and had made use of those parts only that come out well in painting, they would have been absolutely perfect."

This was not the first time that Uccello had painted on the theme of St George and the Dragon. In 1458-60, he had painted the same scene. It is in the Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris.(below). The same points mentioned above could be made of the earlier painting.

(b. 1397, Firenze, d. 1475, Firenze)
St George and the Dragon
Oil on canvas, 52 x 90 cm
Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris

But Uccello`s painting in The National Gallery has inspired responses in the arts.

One of the most significant is the poem "Not My Best Side" by Ursula Askham ('U. A.') Fanthorpe, born 1929, the distinguished English poet:

"Not my Best Side


Not my best side, I'm afraid.
The artist didn't give me a chance to
Pose properly, and as you can see,
Poor chap, he had this obsession with
Triangles, so he left off two of my
Feet. I didn't comment at the time
(What, after all, are two feet
To a monster?) but afterwards
I was sorry for the bad publicity.
Why, I said to myself, should my conqueror
Be so ostentatiously beardless, and ride
A horse with a deformed neck and square hoofs?
Why should my victim be so
Unattractive as to be inedible,
And why should she have me literally
On a string? I don't mind dying
Ritually, since I always rise again,
But I should have liked a little more blood
To show they were taking me seriously.


It's hard for a girl to be sure if
She wants to be rescued. I mean, I quite
Took to the dragon. It's nice to be
Liked, if you know what I mean. He was
So nicely physical, with his claws
And lovely green skin, and that sexy tail,
And the way he looked at me,
He made me feel he was all ready to
Eat me. And any girl enjoys that.
So when this boy turned up, wearing machinery,
On a really dangerous horse, to be honest
I didn't much fancy him. I mean,
What was he like underneath the hardware?
He might have acne, blackheads or even
Bad breath for all I could tell, but the dragon--
Well, you could see all his equipment
At a glance. Still, what could I do?
The dragon got himself beaten by the boy,
And a girl's got to think of her future.


I have diplomas in Dragon
Management and Virgin Reclamation.
My horse is the latest model, with
Automatic transmission and built-in
Obsolescence. My spear is custom-built,
And my prototype armour
Still on the secret list. You can't
Do better than me at the moment.
I'm qualified and equipped to the
Eyebrow. So why be difficult?
Don't you want to be killed and/or rescued
In the most contemporary way? Don't
You want to carry out the roles
That sociology and myth have designed for you?
Don't you realize that, by being choosy,
You are endangering job prospects
In the spear- and horse-building industries?
What, in any case, does it matter what
You want? You're in my way."
-- Ursula Askham ('U. A.') Fanthorpe, born 1929.

Martyn Crucefix also wrote a poem based on the Uccello painting:

"George and the Dragon

A boyish George, arrayed in gleaming plate,
Lunges forward with a lance and white rocking horse.
The dragon’s head dips in sympathy, bleeds
Over the ground, on tousled patches of grass.
But she presents the beast with her palm out –
Stretched as if a harmless pet pulled at the chain.
Is she deceived? Or is that fog behind
Brave George, the black cave’s echo, evil unseen?"

For other pictorial representations of St George and the Dragon, see:

For more on Paolo Uccello, see
The Painter Who Almost Became A Cheese By Paul Barolsky, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 1994

On U. A. Fanthorpe, see: