Chinese Zodiac trail

Explore the symbolism of animals in Eastern and Western traditions

2012: Year of the Dragon
Karly Allen, National Gallery Education and lecturer Judy Xu on the symbolism of dragons in western and eastern culture – 1 min 56 secs

Miranda Hinkley: We’re actually standing in front of one of the paintings that’s going to be on that trail, I think. It’s a painting by Paolo Uccello, painted in the 15th century… it’s very famous, ‘Saint George and the Dragon’. Can you tell us a bit about what’s going on in this painting, Karly?

Karly Allen: Absolutely, well this painting of a dragon is really such a good place to start in thinking about the symbolism and comparisons between East and West, because the dragon plays such an important role and a contrasting role in the two traditions, and in this painting we’re really looking at that traditional battle between good and evil. George, Saint George, in his shining armour, riding on a white horse… he represents absolute good and he’s charging into his battle against the dragon. The dragon that is being subdued by George, its head is lowered, it’s got blood dripping out of its mouth – it’s quite obviously been defeated and, of course, in the Christian tradition the dragon is a representation of the Devil and so here we see George possibly being supported by a sort of symbol of a heavenly power up in the sky behind him, a swirling cloud formation which might represent God’s protection and support of George in his battle against evil.

Miranda Hinkley: Judy, how does that compare with the view of the dragon in Chinese culture?

Judy Xu: I think it’s very interesting that, completely different from the dragon in the Western culture, the Chinese dragon is an extremely positive symbol of good luck and success. It is believed that the people, according to Chinese astrology, people born in the year of the dragon are charismatic and blessed so it’s believed very fortunate to be a child in the year of the dragon.

From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Four, February 2007

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The trail can be downloaded as a PDF document below. Print it out and bring it with you when you visit the Gallery.

The text is in:

  • English
  • Mandarin

PDF fileChinese Zodiac trail [PDF 2.73mb – opens in a new window]

About the trail

This trail looks at 12 pictures from the collection in order to explore the symbolism of animals across different traditions. Each picture features an animal from the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac. 

Who is the trail for?

It is aimed at adults, though families with children can enjoy discovering the paintings together.

Chinese Zodiac

In Chinese astrology, each year is represented by an animal. People born in a given year are said to have personality traits associated with that year’s animal sign.

In European painting, these animals have similar or contrasting meanings, inherited through myth, folklore and religious teaching – how do they compare? 

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