Children's author Cressida Cowell picks one of the great depictions of St George's defining moment.
Cressida Cowell chooses St George and the Dragon by Paolo Uccello
‘My mother often took us to the National Gallery. I was already intensely interested in dragons, but it was the storytelling that gripped me here. I knew you were supposed to be on St George’s side, but this was no scary nightmare of a dragon. It looked like a sweet, anxious Jabberwock, the captive of the cold and grim princess.
‘St George was very unsportsmanlike to spear a tethered creature. Who were the monsters, the humans or the dragon? What was their creator intending me to feel? Like all the best narratives, it awakened questions about heroes and villains.’
Waterstones Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell is known for her ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ series. Her new book, Wizards of Once: Never and Forever, is out now.
John McEwen on St George and the Dragon
The tale of St George (d. 303) and the dragon has its pre-Christian equivalent in ancient mythology, exemplified by the Greek myth of Andromeda, saved by Perseus from the sea monster. Jacobus da Varagine’s book The Golden Legend (1260s) was the prime source of the story for Western artists.
In ‘Silene’ in Libya, there was a poison-breathed dragon and children were chosen by lot to be its placatory victims. A lot fell to the king’s daughter, who, dressed as a bride, was left to her fate. St George happened on the scene and, when the dragon appeared, he made the Sign of the Cross and speared it. Following his instructions, she led the wounded beast back to the city by her girdle. St George killed the dragon on condition everyone became a Christian.
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In Uccello’s painting, the whirlwind and black clouds represent the dragon’s breath. It is one of several by the artist cited as made on Flanders ‘cloth’ or imported Flemish canvas — early proof of Florence’s influential imports from the Low Countries. Also ‘Northern’ are the Gothic princess and quality of the armour.
The picture was not definitively attributed until it was rediscovered after the Second World War; it was bought by the National Gallery in 1959. There is a less ‘atmospheric’ (another Flemish influence) version in the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris.
St George replaced St Edmund as the patron saint of England under Edward III (1327–77). He is the patron saint of several other nations, among them Ethiopia, Georgia (named after him), Greece, Portugal and Russia (Yuri/ George), as well as the patron saint of soldiers, riders, farmers and scouts and a protector from plague.
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