On the eve of St George’s Day, this week’s picture is Paolo Uccello’s depiction of the eponymous saint halfway through his celebrated dragon-slaying act. Painted in the mid-fifteenth-century, it can be seen in the National Gallery in London. The artist’s principal source was the account of St George’s life and miracles given in Jacobus da Voragine’s popular ragbag of hagiographical apocrypha, The Golden Legend:
“It happened that George once travelled to the city of Silena in the province of Lybia. Near this town there was a pond as large as a lake where a plague-bearing dragon lurked; and many times the dragon had put the populace to flight when they came out armed against him, for he used to come up to the city walls and poison everyone who came within reach of his breath. To appease the fury of this monster the townspeople fed him two sheep every day; otherwise he would invade their city and a great many would perish. But in time they were running out of sheep and could not get any more, so, having held a council, they paid him tribute of one sheep and one man or woman. The name of a youth or maiden was drawn by lot, and no one was exempt from the draft; but soon almost all the young people had been eaten up. Then one day the lot fell upon the only daughter of the king, and she was seized and set aside for the dragon…when, weeping, he had blessed her, she started toward the lake.”
At which point the gallant St George, who just happened to be passing at the time, decided to intervene. In Uccello’s interpretation of the story the saint has been made to embody an ununusal blend of pragmatism and romance. He is a knight in shining armour with the dour and phlegmatic demeanour of a council pest-control officer. Armed with an inordinately long lance (just the trick for dealing with plague-breathing monsters) he goes straight to the root of the problem and spears the halitotic dragon in the back of its foul-smelling throat. Gouts of blood drip on to the rocky ground. The resemblance between the dragon’s wing-markings and those of the RAF disconcerted some visitors to the National Gallery when the painting was purchased for the nation, only a few years after the Second World War: St George being England’s patron saint it seemed wrong, somehow, that his adversary should be wearing “our” colours.
As the beast ducks away like a cross between a cringing dog and an overgrown lizard, the remarkably unflustered and dazzlingly white-skinned heroine of the piece snares it with her girdle. This suggests that Uccello conflated two separate incidents in his retelling of the story. According to The Golden Legend, the princess only lassoos the monster after it has been defeated, subsequently leading it captive to the city of Lybia (where it is ceremoniously killed and buried, prompting public rejoicing and mass conversions to Christianity). If she is indeed meant to be enacting a moment in the story when the fight between George and the dragon has just taken place, and the suspense is over, then her languid and somewhat snooty expression makes more sense than it otherwise might. She is plainly disgusted by the smelly beast standing in submission before her. Holding out one of her dainty little hands in a gesture of appalled repugnance, she looks worried that the newly subdued dragon-on-a-lead might bleed all over her splendid costume. Her smart pointy red shoes and bodice-hugging dress, with its low waist and neckline, were all the rage among the aristocracy in Florence circa 1460, which was where and when the picture was almost certainly painted. She is dressed as splendidly as a member of the Medici family – who employed Uccello on more than occasion. The painter cast his own wealthy patrons, or at least people very much like them, as the heroes and heroines of his fictional world.
Like the younger and more famous Leonardo da Vinci – who knew this picture, judging by the way he transposed the figure of St George on horseback into his own much admired fresco of The Battle of Anghiari – Uccello is said to have had a great love of birds. According to the principal biographer of Italian Renaissance artists, Giorgio Vasari, this explains his name, which can be translated into English as “Paul of the Birds”. Vasari also says that Uccello was obsessed by a desire to understand and master mathematically calculated perspective. This new technique had been developed by Brunelleschi and Masaccio in Florence in the 1420s, at a time when Uccello had only recently finished his apprenticeship; and it seems never to have lost its fascination for him. According to Vasari, Uccello’s wife “told people that Paolo used to stay up all night in his study, trying to work out the vanishing points of his perspective, and that when she called him to come to bed he would say: ‘Oh, what a lovely thing this perspective is!’”
If the perspective in St George and the Dragon seems a little wonky, that is because the painter constructed his picture using two vanishing points. Lines of convergence drawn from the space occupied by St George meet in the “V” formed where the dragon’s left wing crosses the right-hand edge of his rocky lair. The same lines drawn from the space occupied by the dragon and princess meet, instead, at a point on the upper periphery of the middle of the three target-like designs on the dragon’s same wing. This could be seen as a mistake, because it robs the picture of complete spatial coherence. But errors are not usually planned quite so meticulously and it seems more likely to me that Uccello deliberately engineered this abrupt clash of two, wedge-like schemes of perspective. Together with the seething and turbulent cloud above, which opens as if to lend divine aid to the cause of St George, it is a device which contributes expressively to the dramatic violence of the scene.
Although the subject matter of the painting is Christian, Uccello’s work appealed not only to the religious sensibilities of his Florentine patrons but also to their abiding love and respect for traditions of chivalry and romance dating back to the early Middle Ages. This is an element of Italian fifteenth-century courtly culture which is often overlooked or suppressed, thanks largely to the persistence of the mistaken nineteenth-century positivist idea that “Renaissance” man turned away completely from all things “Gothic”. The humanist patron had room on his bookshelf for Plato and Cicero, the argument goes, but not for such supposedly retrograde medieval literature as the Romance of the Rose or the Arthurian legends. In fact this is nonsense, as Uccello’s picture proves. St George, riding valiantly to the rescue of a damsel in distress, is a knight of Christ very much in the Sir Galahad mould. As well as being a very charming work of art, St George and the Dragon is also an instructive one. It reminds us that the leading patrons of quattrocento Italy were not nearly as antagonistic towards their own medieval past as is often thought.