Antwerp School, 'The Legend of Saint George and the Dragon'

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C. 1590
Oil on canvas
139.8 cm
242.3 cm

Dutch Art Market
Private Collection

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This large canvas depicts a rare episode from the legend of George and the Dragon; the moment when the king of Silene must give in to the sacrificing of his daughter to please the dragon that is terrorising the town. This dramatic moment, when fate decided that the daughter of the king should be offered, is not often represented in art. Traditionally, George is portrayed with the dragon he had reputedly killed. The imagination of George and the dragon was popular in the Middle Ages and in the succeeding ages because the dragon was seen as a symbol of paganism.

The painting can be placed in the Antwerp School, with Mannerist influences from painters such as Frans Floris and Ambrosius Francken the Elder, and the Italian style of Jan van der Straet. In addition, given its format and the type of depiction, it fits the style of Antwerp's large-figure pieces around 1590 and the tradition of depicting cycles of stories. These were made for the guilds, among others, which ensured a continuous flow of commissions for paintings dedicated to St. George. The dragon slayer was the favourite patron saint and namesake of various archer guilds. They wanted representations of St. George slaying the dragon in their chapels, but also in their guild houses. The painting must be considered in this light, as it was not made for a private home, given its dimensions. In addition, the absence of Saint George on the painting suggests that it was part of a larger narrative series.    

The legend of Saint George and the Dragon tells the story of Saint George, who died in 303, and slayed a dragon that demanded human sacrifices. Because the original story was lost, elements from ancient myths were integrated in it. The story has similarities with the tales of Perseus. In the Legenda Aurea from the 13th century the story is told for the first time. It is situated in Silena in Libia but other sources mention Beirut. The city was controlled by a dragon who was given two sheep to be soothed every day. When the last sheep had been offered, the dragon demanded human sacrifices and fate picked the king's daughter. Dressed in her bridal gown she faced death. However, George attacked the dragon with his spear and wounded the beast. He promised the king and the people that he would kill the animal on the condition that everybody would be baptised by him. When the king and the people agreed to this he killed the dragon and on that day 15.000 people were baptised.  The devotion of Saint George was wide-spread in all parts of the Western world. The dramatic scene, prior to the often depicted slaughtering of the dragon, that is shown on this colorful painting is a rarely depicted thema.  


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