Saint George and the Dragon

December 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

Albrecht Altdorfer: Saint George and the dragon (1510)

The vegetation of the forest completely dominates the surface of this painting, which was painted by German artist Albrecht Altdorfer around the year of 1510. The motif is Saint George and the dragon, here in a forest setting. Something that might strike the viewer as different when it comes to how St George and the dragon are presented here, in comparison to how they appear in other representations, is perhaps the absence of action. There’s no excruciating struggle to the death, there’s no victorious moment showing St George defeating the dragon. There is something puzzling about the image – it is introverted, inaccessible, closed, almost.

A confined setting / a private view

The dense vegetation forms a backdrop to the confrontation between the knight and the dragon. Not only does it serve as a backdrop, it’s almost like a screen or a wall, refusing the onlooker access to the world outside this scene. The brush, tree trunks, branches and foliage form a “wall”, only letting the outside world in through a rather small opening showing some mountains in a distant landscape. This potential exit is blocked, however, by the dragon. In the space above, no sky is visible above the tree tops since the trees seem to go on forever upwards. There’s just dense vegetation. The view to the outside world, then, is heavily fragmented. The onlooker is trapped together with St George inside this confined part of the forest.

The painting is in itself rather small – 28.5 cm x 22.5 cm, which only adds to the confinement of the picture. This, along with how the figures of the painting are presented in regards to placement also hinders the viewer from engaging in the event that is being presented.  The two antagonists are remarkably disengaged in the “fight”, and they are completely overshadowed by the surrounding vegetation. The dragon itself is almost not visible, as it is close to the ground and of same colours as the trees and vegetation. It blends in with the environment, becoming “one” with the forest in which it resides. As actors of this scene, the two of them should be performing in front of us. But they don’t seem to be acting or performing a scene; this is more like a scene behind-the-scenes. A private matter, that is being dealt with behind closed curtains.

The lack of pointers to other contexts, and that the moment that the artist has chosen to portray seems to take place before the fight has started even, makes the outcome of this confrontation seem uncertain. Even though the legend of St George is well known, and it should be established beforehand that he conquers the dragon, there is an uncertainty in this painting. Perhaps it is due to the knight’s apparent lack of engagement (giving the impression of lacking force), or the feeling of being closed in, overshadowed by the forest. On the other hand, the dragon does not seem to be so much of a threat, and the forest isn’t a dark or menacing place either. Instead the forest is green and golden. A golden luminosity indicating, perhaps, a presence of holiness. This forest is more like a place for contemplation and devout piousness rather than violent conflict. Christopher Wood, in his book Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origin of Landscape, points out that the technique that was used for this painting is that of miniature painting – which might mean that this painting was meant for private use. Perhaps it was meant to be looked at for private contemplation and meditation.

The forest is the story

As stated before, the forest dominates the painting’s space. This makes the “background” take over from the supposed subject matter: St George and his fight with the dragon. It makes one wonder if perhaps, the forest is the main actor of this scene; that the forest itself contains the story. (This  is something that is in agreement with what Simon Schama argues in Landscape and Memory, p. 140-141).


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