Saint George and the Dragon

Saint George is shown about to defeat the dragon, by the edge of the sea. The treatment of the subject is unusual: the figure of the fleeing princess is dominant, and in the centre lies a corpse which the dragon was about to eat. The figure of God the Father blessing the saint appears in the sky. The visual narrative reads back from the princess. The blue and rose colours are picked up in the draperies of the corpse and Saint George, and in the pink and blue tints of the cloudscape.

The shoreline leads the eye back into the picture space, while the V-shape formed by the leaning tree-trunk and the princess acts to anchor the composition. The high horizon and viewpoint help create tension and drama in the picture.

The small size of the canvas suggests it was painted for a domestic setting, for devotional use. It was first recorded in 1648 in the Palazzo Correr in Venice, although we do not know whether it was made for the Correr family. The 'Golden Legend' relates that Saint George was a knight from Cappadocia (in modern Turkey), who rescued a maiden from a dragon at Silene, in Libya, a deed of Christian courage, which caused many to be converted. Later he was martyred as a result of the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian.

Gallery insight: Karly Allen
Karly Allen, National Gallery Education, explores the story of Saint George - 3 mins 31 secs

Miranda Hinkley: Karly, tell me a bit about this story. We think we all know it very well – it’s Saint George, he kills a dragon, but what do we see here?

Karly Allen: Well, in many respects the story is instantly recognisable – we do feel that we know this tale of Saint George and the dragon. We see them in the centre of the painting. Saint George is the brave knight in shining armour – he’s mounted on a white horse and he’s frozen in this act of challenging and subduing the ferocious dragon. The dragon bears its teeth; it has a long vicious looking tongue, and its claws are embedded in the seashore. This story of Saint George and the dragon is so well known that many people just can’t remember when they first heard it, or a version of it – it’s really embedded in our cultural back catalogue if you like – and I think it’s fascinating to think about how we approach a painting like this of Saint George and the Dragon. What do we bring to it ourselves and what does it mean to us in a modern diverse society?

Miranda Hinkley: I mean, to us perhaps, this looks like a fairly straightforward story of good winning out over evil and the dragon symbolising wickedness, and Saint George coming in and saving the princess and defeating evil, but what’s actually going on?

Karly Allen: I think it’s possible to look at this painting in many different ways and of course around celebrations for Saint George’s Day it becomes a representation of that very English story, that for many people Saint George is an icon of Englishness and he’s really wrapped up in national identity, national pride, so that traditionally people have wanted to be associated with even his saint’s day, 23 April. It’s often noted that Shakespeare, that great English icon, died on 23 April, and Turner, the patriotic English painter, wanted people to believe he was born on Saint George’s Day, although that may have been a figment of his imagination. And of course the English flag, the red cross on the white background, is the Saint George Cross, so for many people it symbolises England.

It’s important to remember that Saint George himself wasn’t English; he was a Roman soldier, he was born in an area which is now in modern-day Turkey, and most of his stories are linked to sites that are in the Middle East. So the cult of Saint George originated in the eastern Mediterranean and then spread out across the world. Today, Saint George is the patron saint of Catalonia, Portugal, Greece, Russia, Brazil, Ethiopia, among many other countries as well as England, so he truly is an international symbol for many people.

So it’s interesting how this then affects our experience of the painting in the Gallery, in the secularised environment of the National Gallery, where I think we can now enjoy that layering of many different meanings. As well as bringing our own personal experience to it, for us these notions can exist side by side, so that George is simultaneously the chivalrous knight, he’s the romantic hero, he’s a focus for national pride, but he’s also an international patron saint of many different countries. And so when we stand in front of it, I think we’re responding to that very universal appeal of Saint George slaying the dragon whatever that dragon might be.

From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Thirty, April 2009

Key facts

Artist dates
about 1518 - 1594
Full title
Saint George and the Dragon
Date made
about 1555
Medium and support
Oil on canvas
158.3 x 100.5 cm
Acquisition credit
Holwell Carr Bequest, 1831
Inventory number
Location in Gallery