"The Battle of the Dragon against St George"
by Francesco D'Achille
“How was it possible that a symbol that represented the soul of the dead became an “emblem of evil”?”
“Saint George and the Dragon”, Paolo Uccello (around 1460 - National Gallery of London)
The theme of the Holy Martyr slayer of dragons finds its origin in a medieval source, that of the Legenda Aurea compiled in Latin by Jacopo da Varazze, Dominican friar and bishop of Genoa, starting from around 1260. The Golden Legend is said to be the story of the Christian saints who with their exemplary life led humanity on the road to salvation. The hagiographic tale tells of a Libyan city, Silena infested by a dragon who kills with its breath all the people it meets on his way. It is told that in order to tame the ferocious beast the people from Silena needed to feed it cattle and with the shortage of the latter, human beings. One day, the daughter of the king of the city was drawn from a hat for the blood tribute. The princess was saved by St. George, a Christian knight who climbed on horseback and defended himself with the cross and managed to free the princess and the city from the ravenous beast. The story soon became a famous theme of medieval hagiography taken up in iconography and painting in many variations.
In visual terms, the painting (oil painting on canvas / 57X73cm) echoes the theme of the struggle of good against evil. The basic dualism that organizes it is also projected on the canvas, virtually divided by a vertical line that cuts it into two parts. The part of evil is characterized, on the left, by the figure of the dragon, mortally wounded and bleeding, outside the cave that serves as his lair, with the girl at his side who keeps him on a “leash” (as the legend tells) using the belt of the Saint. On the right, however, St. George is visible on his white horse with his long and very fine spear, surmounted by a “spiral” cloud that seems to represent both the warrior vigour of the saint and the wrath of God. It is the symbol, “descended into history”, of the Christian faith that defeats the “pagan” monster. However, the painting also seems to suggest the metaphysical ideal of the victorious struggle of the anchorite over sensual instincts. It is no coincidence that the figure of St. George is a symbol of both chivalric ideals and monastic and hesychastic ones.
The theme of the “fight against the dragon” goes back a long way. If we compare the mythologies of the Greek, Sumerian and Babylonian areas or even the “fairy tales” of the Baltic area on this theme, we can identify traces of them already in the Archaic period. The Christian theme of St. George and the dragon seems to represent, in some way, the most recent stage and also the final outcome of a legend and an icon that has had great success in the West and in Asia Minor. The oldest reference to the symbol of the “dragon” in the Asian area is probably found in the Enuma Elis, the sacred text of Babylonian mythology. Tiāmat, mother of the whole cosmos, is depicted as a dragon, assimilated to primordial chaos and linked with the powers of the underground and marine world. From the death of this monstrous figure at the hands of her mythological “grandson”, Marduk, the world, the earth and the sea are formed according to myth. The Asian root of this theme is confirmed by Karol Kerényi in his book The Gods and Heroes of Greece. According to the Hungarian mythologist, the story of Zeus’s fight against the dragon Typhon “is also a very ancient story that neither Hesiod, nor those who expanded his poem on the origin of the gods, wanted to tell us, but which came back to us from ‘Asia Minor.” Also this “Greek mythologem” tells of a battle crossed by a strong “dualism”, that of the “Olympic and celestial forces” against the “chthonic and telluric powers” that are born and reside in the depths of the Earth. The dragon Typhon is born of Gaea (Mother Earth) after the defeat of the Titans and is killed by Zeus with lightning, after a ferocious battle. More recent, certainly, the mythologem of Andromeda and Perseus celebrated by Euripides in his lost tragedy, Andromeda. The latter, probably much closer to the hagiographic theme, tells of Andromeda, daughter of Cepheus king of Ethiopia and Cassiopeia, kidnapped by a sea monster. Kerényi narrates:
“Perseus flew in and killed the monster. An ancient vase decoration presents him while, throwing stones with both hands, he fights against the monster that is coming out of the sea. Andromeda hands him the stones. The Hero freed her from the chains. “
A more in-depth reading of the mysterious symbol of the dragon can be found in V. Propp’s masterpiece, The historical roots of fairy tales. In this masterful text that makes use of an infinite number of materials collected from all over the world, Propp compares the figures of the dragon as they appear in myths and fables of peoples chronologically and geographically very distant from each other and reconstructs the function and meaning of this imaginary animal. The first fact that appears essential is linked to the ambivalence of the dragon: on the one hand, the dragon is a monstrous figure that demands victims and against whom a fight or a duel must be waged, but on the other hand, the same figure appears as guardian of the threshold that divides the world of the living from that of the dead, as well as a giver of gifts magical faculties and technical arts to humanity. According to Propp, the positive values of the dragon precedes the negative one. The Russian author writes:
“These fantastic animals are the product of a late and even urban culture, when man had begun to lose the intimate and organic bond with animals […] The epoch of greatest splendour of these beings is that of the ancient states, Egypt, Babylon, ancient India, Greece, China, where the dragon also appears in the coat of arms, symbolizing the state. On the contrary, it does not exist among truly primitive peoples. […] The dragon is a mechanical combination of several animals, it is a phenomenon identical to the Egyptian sphinxes, the classical centaurs, etc. The artistic representations of the dragon show that in addition to its fundamental aspect (reptile + bird) it can be made up of very different animals, and that not only the crocodile or the lizard and the bird enter into its composition, but also the panther, the lion, the goat and other animals, of which a moltitude of this he can consist of. [..] On the other hand, the animal is not what the man of the city can deal with, it is another, it is the one into which the deceased (snake, worm, bird) transforms, it is not part of everyday life, he is hypostatized and mysterious […] They are the ones that no one has ever seen, but who are invested with a mysterious, otherworldly and extraordinary power. Thus hybrid beings are formed, one of which is the dragon. If we now look closely at the figure of the dragon (consisting essentially of the snake + the bird) […] we can conclude that the dragon is made up of two animals that represent the soul, namely the bird and the snake. Originally, the man who died could transform himself into any animal, as evidenced by numerous documents. But when the representations of the land of death appear, it begins to be located either high above the earth, or beyond the horizon, or, on the contrary, underground. […] In correspondence with this fact, the number of animals into which the deceased can transform is reduced. For the distant realms birds are born, for the subterranean realms snakes, worms and reptiles, between which, it seems, no particular differences are made. The bird and the snake are the most common and widespread animals that represent the soul and they have merged into the figure of the dragon. “
These observations appear very interesting. In the theme of St. George’s fight with the dragon, the dragon represents “evil”, the lowest and dirtiest instincts. On the contrary, if we recognize these considerations by Propp as true, the figure of the dragon is a compound of the animals that represented the soul of the deceased in ancient times, mainly the snake and the bird. What happened in the meantime? How is it possible that a symbol that represented the soul of the dead became an “emblem of evil”?
It may be that the figure of the dragon was exposed to that phenomenon of “iconographic inversion” typical of Renaissance art, but certainly already prepared in the Middle Ages, as analyzed and described by Aby Warburg:
“The reuse of ancient ‘prototypes’ in the Renaissance was certainly based on the fact that they were considered as models awarded the auctoritas deriving from classicism, but not only. On the other hand, it is not even possible to say that the artists re-used images of classical origin while always maintaining the awareness of their original iconographic meaning. Painters and sculptors rather intended to isolate, by abstracting them from their context, particularly expressive figures and characteristic gestures. – According to Warburg – “Renaissance artists were especially interested in the expressive power of classical figures, capable of conveying with their intensified movements” experiences of human emotion in the entire range of its tragic polarity from the passive attitude of suffering to the active one of victory “.
The hagiographic motif of St. George’s fight with the dragon did not aim, therefore, at placing only the emphasis on the saving power of Christianity in relation to the pagan world, but even more at the “reversal of the iconographic value” of a symbol that for centuries, before the advent of Christianity, it had represented the mysterious powers of the soul of the dead. Before Christianity, in fact, the soul was not represented with the characters of “purity” and “celestiality” that the theologians of medieval dogmatics then attributed to it. It was described as a mysterious force, capable of travelling between different worlds and endowed with a capacity for continuous metamorphosis and regeneration.
The characters of the snake and the bird so intimately connected in the figure of the dragon represented an “animal dimension” of the soul that Christianity could not accept. In addition to Aby Warburg, Robert Graves has also analysed and described a phenomenon similar to that of “iconographic inversion”, defining it with the term “iconotropy”:
“Iconotropy is a technique of deliberate misrepresentation consisting in the distortion of the meaning of ancient ritual icons in order to sanction a profound change that has occurred in the existing religious system (usually the transition from a matriarchal to a patriarchal system), incorporating new meanings into the myths. “
These phenomena of “iconotropy” or “iconographic inversion” seem to clarify the ambivalence inherent in the symbol of the dragon in its historical course. The fight of St. George against the dragon does not only represent the struggle of Christianity against pagan Islam. The dragon is not only a “ravenous and evil beast”, but also a representative of a relationship, considered perverse, between the natural world and the spiritual world. Fighting and defeating the dragon then means destroying the natural and earthly residue of the human soul through the weapons of the “Spirit”. In this way, the soul is separated from the symbol with which it was identified, that symbol of the snake that before representing “the Adversary”, had represented for centuries the powers of metamorphosis and regeneration of natural life in which the man felt included.
Erwin Rohde narrates in his Psyche how near Epidaurus there was a cave in the depths of which, in the form of a snake, Asclepius lived. The myth of the “divine doctor” tells that anyone afflicted with some disease could go to the cave to be treated by the son of Apollo. Men afflicted by evil had to fall asleep and wait for Asclepius, always in the form of a snake, to wrap them in his coils and through that practice called “incubatio” to address them miraculous cures. In ancient times this practice, widespread throughout the Mediterranean area, was the sign of the magical-religious power that was attributed to dreams and the dream world as a whole.
The dream world, unlike the waking world, becomes the guardian of symbols and their natural and earthly value. In the dream world there can be no phenomena, nor “iconotropy”, nor “iconographic inversion”, which is why the encounter with animals, especially with the wilder and less tameable ones, has a strong potential for meaning, as traumatic as it is salvific. If it is true, in fact, that in dreams we cannot defend ourselves with the weapons of conscience and reason, it is equally true, however, that the dream world represents the dimension of existence where only the imaginative faculty of man dominates. The world of dreams shares with the sphere of mythology, literature and figurative arts a more powerful and freer dimension where symbols do not simply have a psychic value, but mainly represent forces, “virtues” (non-moral virtues). As Foucault writes:
“l’expérience onirique enveloppe […] toute une anthropologie de l’imagination; il exige une nouvelle définition des rapports du sens et du symbole, de l’image et de l’expression; bref, une nouvelle manière de concevoir comment se manifestent les significations.”
“the dream experience envelops […] a whole anthropology of the imagination; it requires a new definition of the relationship between meaning and symbol, image and expression; in short, a new way of conceiving how meanings manifest themselves.”
This work of discovery on the modalities of the “manifestation of meanings” is a work that transforms us, because through it we can analyse the psycho-physiological need for expressive acts. In the dream dimension we do not encounter the world as it is, but we experience how this is formed. Foucault writes again:
“Rêver n’est pas une autre façon de faire l’expérience d’un autre monde, c’est pour le sujet qui rêve la manière radicale de faire l’expérience de son monde, et si cette manière est à ce point radicale, c’est que l’existence ne s’y annonce pas comme étant le monde. Le rêve se situe à ce moment ultime où l’existence est encore son monde, aussitôt au-delà, dès l’aurore de l’éveil, déjà elle ne l’est plus.”
“Dreaming is not another way of experiencing another world, it is for the subject who dreams the radical way of experiencing his world, and if this way is so radical, it is that existence is not announced there as being the world. The dream is situated at this ultimate moment when existence is still its world, immediately beyond, from the dawn of awakening, it is already no longer.”
In dreams, as in literature and the figurative arts, it can happen, in fact, to have an experience of the imagination that is transformative. The dream experience is presented in such a way as to overturn the theme of Paolo Uccello’s painting, no longer the fight of Saint George against the dragon, but the fight of the Dragon against Saint George. Here the power of the imagination, which spontaneously presents its forms, reaffirms our being located in the domain of nature, moving us away from that waking world that reduces our life to objective and merely rational data.
Francesco D’Achille, an independent researcher. “I obtained my PhD in Philosophy at the University of Salento (Lecce-Italy) in co-tutorship with the École pratique des hautes études (Paris-France). I mainly dealt with contemporary philosophy, I specialized in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, but over time my interests have shifted more and more to the study of the history of religions and the science of mythology, in relation to iconographic and iconological materials. My reference authors in this field are A. Warburg, K. Kerényi, R. Graves, V. Propp, E. Rohde, J. J. Bachofen. I think that the study of mythology, of the history of religions, of iconology applied to philosophy and the human sciences is the key not only to understand the historical development of Western culture, but also to grasp the intrinsic evolutionary force of man preserved in his imaginative faculty.”