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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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 and the defeat of the dragon symbolizes the conversion of a pagan land or city to Christianity.

The painting can be placed in the tradition of large-figure pieces in Antwerp around 1590. The attribution to the Flemish painter Ambrosius Francken I is based on the great stylistic similarities with his prints and drawings, see for instance a print in the collection of the Rijksmuseum, inv. no. RP-P-1995-26-28 and a drawing in the collection of Museum Mayer van den Bergh, inv. no. MMB.1070. The large figures with long, draped robes and the facial expression of many are striking and the way in which the architecture in the background is incorporated into the whole is very similar. Francken, from Herentals near Antwerp, was an important member of the Francken family of artists. He learned the trade from his father and from leading Antwerp mannerist painter Frans Floris. He is mostly known for his religious works, altarpieces and historical allegories, painted in a late Mannerist style and influenced by Marten de Vos. Both his brother Frans Francken I and Hieronymus Francken I both became successful painters. His cousin Hieronymus Francken II was among his later pupils.  

The Italian influence on the 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 Saint George is shown, with large figures on an immense canvas. 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 and given its size and type of image, it fits in the tradition of depicting cycles of stories. Around 1575, Michiel Coxie painted  a large triptych dedicated to Saint George for the Antwerp militia guild De Jonge Voetboog, which was intended for the guild chapel in the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk. This triptych is an example of a commission by a guild for a thematic representation of St. George. In general, it can be said that the guilds provided a continuous flow of commissions of paintings dedicated to Saint George, to decorate their chapels and their guild house. The dragon slayer was the favorite patron saint and namesake of various marksmen's guilds. 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, this scene would not have been out of place.  

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. He became the emblem of countries and regions in Europe, such as England, Portugal, Catalonia and Aragon. Saint 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.  The dramatic scene, prior to the often depicted slaughtering of the dragon, that is shown in this colorful painting is a rarely depicted theme.  


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