Saint George taming then slaying a dragon is one of the most fantastic saints‘ legends of the Middle Ages. Uccello has compressed two parts of the story into one small and strange picture. The saint plunges his spear into the head of a dragon, whose odd shape mirrors the entrance to his cave. An elegant, if bored-looking, princess already has a leash around its neck.
We don’t know who this painting was for, but its small scale and non-religious feel – it’s more about a magical adventure than Christian virtue – suggest it was intended for someone’s home. It was relatively cheap to make: it’s in oil on canvas and contains no expensive pigments or gilding.
Uccello was fascinated by single point perspective – using lines that lead to one point to create an illusion of depth within a painting – but he hasn’t quite mastered it here. The geometric patches of greenery recede towards the horizon, but the rectangular stones of the ground slope up to the right.
Saint George and the dragon must be one most fantastic saints‘ legends to come down to us from the Middle Ages. According to the Golden Legend George was a Christian knight from Cappadocia, now in Turkey. One day he came to the city of Silene, in Libya, which was being terrorised by a dragon. This beast, having eaten all the available sheep, was being fed children, drawn by lot from both rich and poor. The lot eventually fell on the king’s daughter, who was dressed as a bride and delivered to the place where the dragon lived.
George, passing by on his horse, asked her why she was weeping. When the dragon appeared George attacked, but rather than killing it he told the princess to tie her belt around its neck and lead it to the city. There he promised the terrified citizens he would kill it if they all converted to Christianity. They hastily agreed, and George struck off the dragon’s head.
Paolo Uccello has compressed two parts of the story into one small and distinctly strange painting. The saint on his prancing charger plunges his spear into the head of an oddly triangular dragon, whose shape mirrors the entrance to his cave; the elegant, but rather bored-looking, princess already has a leash around its neck. A crescent moon perhaps suggests that this is taking place as day changes into night, a transitional and therefore especially magical time. Everything about the picture, from the strange spiralling cloud to the odd landscape, makes this a scene from fantasy rather than the real world. Even the horse is also more dreamlike than lifelike: its neck is unnaturally curved, its hooves oddly angular, and its eyes and nostrils set too far forward in its head.
We don’t know precisely who this painting was done for, or when it was painted, but its small scale and non-religious feel – it’s more about a magical adventure than Christian virtue – suggest it was intended for use in someone’s home, perhaps in a bedroom. Saint George was very popular throughout Italy. Two other versions of this story by Uccello and his workshop survive, one in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, the other Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris. The style is quite close to Uccello’s Hunt in the Forest (now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) and the princess’s clothes – look at her fantastic pointed shoes – seem to date from around 1460. But the saint’s armour looks rather earlier, and is similar to that worn by the knights in Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano, although less detailed. Perhaps Uccello was drawing it from memory, or just simplified it to suit a much smaller picture. Although Uccello was very interested armour and battle manoeuvres, he has adjusted reality for the sake of visual effect. George holds his lance incorrectly, so that it can line up with the dragon’s wing and the clouds, and his arm is bent up the wrong way.
Uccello was fascinated by linear perspective – using lines to create an impression of three-dimensional space within a painting – as you can also see in Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano. It was a relatively recent discovery at that time, and he has not quite mastered it here. The imagined lines go in different directions rather than receding to a single point, making the painting quite confusing to look at. The geometric patches of greenery lead towards a distant horizon – where you can just make out the walls of a city – but the strangely rectangular stones of the ground all slope up to the right. The spiralling cloud in the top right balances the curving depths of the dragon’s cave, drawing our eyes in different directions. The various vanishing points contribute to the sense of the magical and marvellous.
The painting was perhaps made quite rapidly and cheaply. It’s in oil on canvas, and contains no expensive pigments or gilding. The canvas support might even have been reused: infrared reflectograms show a curved geometric shape underneath the drawing for the princess’s dress, perhaps traces of an earlier heraldic design, which was possibly never completed and was covered with an extra layer of priming below the paint surface.
There are several differences between the underdrawing and the final painted version. The princess’s hands, her crown and the front of her dress were all altered, the cave has changed shape and George’s lance has been narrowed or moved up a bit. Some of the pigments have changed colour, especially the greens and blue – so the sky, which is azurite, looks greener than it would have been originally, and the green grasses are darker (there is a trace of the original colour along the bottom, where the paint has been protected by the frame). The green of the princess’s clothing has darkened while her red overdress has faded, so that she is now less colourful than she was originally. The strange pink ground also appears in Uccello’s Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano. The painting originally had blue painted borders, quite a common feature of early canvas paintings.
In 1939 the painting was stolen by Nazis from its then owner, Count Karol Lanckoronski, and kept in the salt mines at Alt Ausee or possibly in the Immendorf Castle, with other works destined for the Hitler Museum. It was later recovered by the American army, and was bought by the National Gallery in 1959.
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