Attributed to Ambrosius Francken I (ca. 1544-1618), '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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An episode from the legend of George and the Dragon is depicted on a large canvas. This episode 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 defeat of the dragon symbolizes the conversion of a pagan land or city to Christianity.

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. Other sources mention Beirut. 

The city was controlled by a dragon. Every day he was given two sheep to be soothed. When the last sheep had been offered, the dragon demanded human sacrifices. 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. He became the emblem of countries and regions in Europe, such as England, Portugal, Catalonia and Aragon. Sain George is a versatile figure who also was the patron saint of various guilds, organisations and several European cities that were placed under his protection. Therefore, he was depicted frequently as can be seen in the large European Museums. 

However, this representation of the moment that precedes the defeat of the dragon, the dramatic moment when fate decided that the daughter of the king should be offered, is hardly depicted. 

The painting can be placed in the tradition of large-figure pieces in Antwerp around 1590. The attribution to Ambrosius Francken I is based on the great stylistic similarities with his prints and drawings. (see image below). The large figures with long robes and the facial expression of many are striking. The way in which the architecture in the background is incorporated into the whole is very similar. Francken, from Herentals near Antwerp. He was an important member of the Francken family of artists. He learned the trade from his father and Frans Floris. His cousin Hieronymus was among his later pupils. The Italian influence on subject and painting is undeniably linked to the painting The triumph of Joris by Vittore Carpaccio in Venice. Here too, a less often depicted episode from the legend of Joris is depicted in which large figures on an immense canvas depict the scene. Since Ambrosius is believed to have traveled to Italy, this influence is not surprising.  The painting cannot be seen in isolation from the large-scale tapestry production in the southern Netherlands. Given its size and type of image, it fits in the tradition of depicting cycles of stories.  Around 1575, Michiel Coxie painted for the Antwerp militia guild "de Jonge Voetboog" a large triptych dedicated to St George, which was intended for the guild chapel in the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk. This triptych with is an example of a commission by a guild for a thematic representation of Joris. In general, it can be said that the guilds provided a continuous flow of commissions of paintings dedicated to St George. The dragon slayer was the favorite patron saint and namesake of various marksmen's guilds. In their chapels, but also in their guild houses, they wanted images of Joris slaying the dragon. It was this heroic act that was of course often portrayed. But in this light, the present painting must also be considered, which, given its dimensions, will not have been made for a private home. In a cycle with paintings of George and the dragon, the previous episode in a Guild Room would not have been out of place. Gilles Coignet painted an intriguing panel for the guild room of the Young Arch of the Foot in 1581. The large painting, inspired by Venetian examples, is striking because of the naked princess, as she is usually dressed in wedding clothes. It indicates that this guild was open to experimentation and it is therefore not inconceivable that the painting with the episode of the royal daughter from the legend of St Joris described here was created for a guild room like that of the Young Foot Arch in Antwerp.


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