Painting of the Month

Paolo Uccello: 'Saint George and the Dragon'

He’s England’s patron saint, but little can be said with any certainty about Saint George.

Detail from Paolo Uccello, 'Saint George and the Dragon', about 1470
Detail from Paolo Uccello, 'Saint George and the Dragon', about 1470

According to legend, Saint George was a Roman soldier who refused to recant his Christian faith, and who was subjected to brutal torture and death by the Emperor Diocletian. He was martyred in Nicomedia (in modern Turkey) and buried in Lydda (in modern Israel).

Uccello depicts the scene for which Saint George is most associated - his battle with the dragon - a legend that became popular in the 13th century when recounted by Jacobus de Voragine.

The legend tells of a town in Lydda, terrorised by a fearsome dragon living in a nearby lake. After trying to appease the dragon by feeding him sheep, the townsfolk were forced to offer their own people, who were chosen by lot.  

One day, the lot fell upon the king’s daughter. Fortunately, she was saved from her fate by Saint George, who was passing at the opportune moment. Ignoring her pleas to ride on, George charged at the dragon, spearing him with his lance, and urged the princess to throw her girdle around the dragon’s neck. They later returned to the town, where George killed the dragon with his sword. In gratitude, all the townsfolk converted to Christianity, but despite offers of money and the princess’s hand in marriage, George continued on his journey.

Uccello has chosen to show both the moment that George defeats the dragon (more accurately, a wyvern), and the moment when the dragon is subdued by the princess’s girdle. The line of the lance extends back, behind the saint, into the clouds. A circular storm cloud gathers menacingly overhead. Is this an indication that divine intervention has helped the saint to victory or that the destruction of the dragon marks the return of the world to a more normal and natural state?

George is depicted in somewhat anachronistic armour for 1470, and the princess is very fashionably dressed. The princess gestures slightly unusually towards the dragon with her open hand. Is she encouraging George to defeat the dragon or is she encouraging the dragon to rise up?

Saint George and the Dragon
Paolo Uccello
about 1470

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