Saint George plunges his lance into the jaws of the dragon which, according to legend, inhabited the lake outside the city of Lydda in the Holy Land. He has arrived just in time to save the princess, who had been presented as a sacrifice to the creature. The dead body of one of the dragon’s earlier victims lies on the ground. God the Father appears in the heavens in answer to George’s prayers and intervenes to help him defeat the dragon.
Tintoretto has devised a daring, dramatically heaving composition, with the horizon set two thirds up the picture and the figures positioned above one another receding obliquely into the distance. The headlong movement of the princess and Saint George is continued in the swirling draperies, rushing waters and thunderous clouds pierced by blinding beams of light in the heavens.
Although the painting was intended as an altarpiece it may always have been kept in a private domestic setting, probably a private chapel.
Saint George plunges his lance into the jaws of the dragon which, according to legend, inhabited the lake outside the city of Lydda in the Holy Land. Having already fed the creature all their livestock, the people had resorted to feeding it human beings. Saint George arrives just in time to save the princess, who had been presented as a sacrifice. The dead body of one of the dragon’s earlier victims lies on the ground. God the Father appears in the heavens in answer to George’s prayers and intervenes to help him defeat the dragon.
After subduing the monster, Saint George tethered it and persuaded the princess to lead it to the city. On seeing the miracle 20,000 people chose to be baptised as Christians. The story is told in the Golden Legend, which adds that other sources say that Saint George killed the dragon on the spot, and also admits that some authorities had expressed scepticism about the legend. The emphasis of Tintoretto’s painting is on prayers being answered by God – this may be because he was responding to concerns of the Counter Reformation Church about the promotion of a legend to the same status as a properly authenticated miracle or martyrdom.
Little is known about Saint George. He was said to have been from Cappadocia in Turkey and his cult was strong throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Legend has it that he was a third-century Roman soldier who objected to Rome’s persecution of Christians, and was imprisoned and tortured by order of Emperor Diocletian but remained true to his faith. He was beheaded at Lydda and his tomb was later brought to Western Europe by the Crusaders. He was especially popular in Venice, where many of his relics were collected, as well as in Genoa and in England (where he is patron saint).
Tintoretto devised a daring, dramatically heaving composition, with the horizon set two thirds up the picture and the figures positioned above one another receding obliquely into the distance. He foreshortened the princess’s hand so that it appears to project into our space as she rises from her knees and rushes out of the picture towards us. Her red mantle, floating behind her, emphasises her speed. The painting is alive with energy and action: the headlong movement of the princess and Saint George is continued in the swirling draperies, rushing waters and thunderous clouds pierced by blinding beams of light in the heavens.
Infrared reflectography has revealed that every aspect of the composition was drawn with a brush prior to painting, with the exception of God the Father. There were several differences between the drawing and final painting. The towers of the city walls were drawn crowned with domes and the ramparts were lined with spectators. The saint and princess’s heads were positioned slightly differently, but the corpse was in an entirely different pose and in the foreground.
Although the subject of Saint George and the dragon appears in earlier Venetian paintings, it is most common in relief carvings in stone, many of which, mostly dating from the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, may still be seen in the city. For Tintoretto, the most important of these would have been the relief commissioned from Pietro da Salò in 1551 for the façade of the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni in Venice (the Confraternity of Saint George of the Slavs). He seems to have taken from this relief the idea of showing the horse with both front legs raised directly above the dragon, whose jaw is pierced by Saint George’s lance as it turns its head back.
The painting has always been recognised as a work by Tintoretto. It has the intense colour of his early works of the late 1540s, such as the Last Supper of 1547 (S. Marcuola, Venice) and the Miracle of Saint Mark of 1548 (Accademia, Venice), but space is created with more assurance and dramatic effect, suggesting it is likely to date from the 1550s.
Although the canvas is rectangular, the painting is arched in shape and must originally have been displayed in a frame with spandrels, as it is now. The painting’s shape suggests that it was probably intended as an altarpiece. Most of the earlier representations of the subject had a horizontal format – it must have been the need to compress the narrative into a vertical composition suitable for an altarpiece that gave Tintoretto the novel idea of placing the princess in the foreground and the figures above one another. Even more unusual than this is his decision to place the saint in the middle distance and to make the princess the largest and most prominent figure in the painting.
Due to the distant position of Saint George, the painting may have been deemed unsuitable for public worship as the saint needed to be clearly visible in the foreground as a focus for prayer. If the painting was made as an altarpiece for a church in Venice, it must have been quickly removed from its location or never accepted, as it is not mentioned in contemporary Venetian guidebooks. In his compilation of artists‘ biographies, Le Maraviglie dell’arte (The Wonders of Art), published in 1642, Ridolfi mentions that Tintoretto made ‘an altarpiece of Saint George killing the dragon’ for the chapter house of SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Venice that had been removed and replaced by a copy. An altarpiece for a chapter house would probably not be as large as those in the main body of the church, so Ridolfi may have been referring to this picture.
The painting is recorded in a Venetian palace in the seventeenth century, which suggests that it may always have been kept in a private domestic setting, probably a private chapel. In the 1648 edition of his Maraviglie, Ridolfi adds that the Senator Pietro Correr owned ‘a most delightful sketch of Saint George killing the dragon with the king’s daughter who flees in terror and also including some corpses very finely disposed’. In his rhymed guide to Venetian painting, Boschini in 1660 also describes a painting of the same subject that belonged to the Correr family. Boschini notes that the picture was significantly smaller than the rest of Tintoretto’s paintings, which further suggests that this was the National Gallery’s picture. A preparatory drawing for the dead body survives in the Louvre, Paris.
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