Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art, by John Vinycomb, , at sacred-texts.com
St. George, the patron saint of England, in his legendary combat with the monster, is a subject which occurs frequently in English sculpture and painting, and enters largely into the language and literature of the nation. St. George appears to have been selected as the patron saint of England not long after the Norman conquest. We find the anniversary of
his martyrdom (April 23) was ordered to be observed as a festival by the National Synod of Oxford in 1222 A.D.
The "Golden Legend," printed by Pynson in 1 507 (fol. cxix.), thus refers to "Saynt George": "This blyssed and holy martyr Saynt George is patrone of this reame of Englōd: and ye crye of mē of warre; and in ye worsyp of whome is founded ye noble order of a garter: and also ye noble college in ye castell of Wyndsore, by Kynges of Englond. In whyche college is ye herte of Saynt George: whyche Sygysmond ye Emperour of Alamayn brought: and gaf it for a grete and precyous relyque to kynge Harry the fifte. And also the said Sygysmond was broder of the sayd garter. And also there is a piece of his head; which college is nobly endowed to thonour and worshippe almighty God and his blyssed Martyr Saynt George. Then late us praye vnto hym that he be specyel protectour and defendour of this royaume."
The emblems commonly given to St. George, martyr, and patron saint of England are: a dragon, a shield bearing a red cross on a white field, and a spear. He is usually represented on horseback in the act of spearing the monster which is vomiting fire; or as standing with the slain dragon at his feet.
That St. George is a veritable character is beyond all reasonable doubt, and there seems no reason to deny that he was born in Armorica, and was beheaded in Diocletian's persecution by order of Datianus, April 23, 303. St. Jerome (331–420)
mentions him in one of his martyrologies; in the next century there were many churches erected to his honour. St. Gregory (540–604) has in his sacramentary a "Preface for St. George's Day"; and the Venerable Bede (672–735) in his martyrology, says: "At last St. George truly finished his martyrdom by decapitation, although the gests of his passion are numbered among the apocryphal writings."
According to the old ballad given in Bishop Percy's "Reliques of Ancient Poetry," St. George was the son of Lord Albert of Coventry. His mother died in giving him birth, and the new-born babe was stolen away by the weird lady of the woods, who brought him up to deeds of arms. His body had three marks: a dragon on the breast, a garter round one of the legs, and a blood-red cross on the arm. When he grew to manhood he first fought against the Saracens, and then went to Sylene, a city of Libya, where was a stagnant lake infested by a huge dragon, whose poisonous breath "had many a city slain," and whose hide "no spear nor sword could pierce." Every day a virgin was sacrificed to it, and at length it came to the lot of Sabra, the king's daughter, to become its victim. Decked out in bridal array she went out to meet the dragon; she was tied to the stake, and left to be devoured, when St. George appeared in full panoply and mounted on his charger. He vowed to take her cause in hand, and when the dragon came on the scene it was encountered by the hero, who wounded it, and binding it to the lady's girdle it was
led like a "meek beast" into the city. St. George there attacked it, thrusting his lance into its mouth, killed it on the spot, and a church dedicated to Our Lady and St. George was built to commemorate the event. After many adventures he carried off Sabra to England, where they were wedded, and at Coventry lived happily till their death.
In his history of the Order of the Garter Mr. Antis warmly censures those who would doubt the traditionary history of that saint, and says "he who would credit St. Ambrose will not detract from the honour of our George, the soldier and martyr of Christ, concerning the dragon and the deliverance of the beautiful royal virgin, which is related in so many pictures," adding that "he shall not contradict those who make an allegory of it, so that they do not deny the certainty of this history. . . . Suppose every one George, who being clothed with the virtue of baptism and armour of faith, keeps his earthly body in subjection by the due exercise of religion and piety, and by the armour of the Spirit overcomes, and by the true spiritual art crushes and confounds the serpent's poison, the snares of the old Dragon, and his diabolical arts and stratagems."
The dragon slain by St. George is simply a common allegory to express the triumph of the Christian hero over evil, which St. John the Evangelist beheld under the figure of a dragon. Similarly St. Michael, St. Margaret, St. Sylvester and St. Martha are all depicted as slaying dragons;
the Saviour and the Virgin as treading them under foot; and St. John the Evangelist as charming a winged dragon from a poisoned chalice given him to drink. Even John Bunyan avails himself of the same figure, when he makes Christian encounter Apollyon and prevail against him.
A learned Frenchman, M. Clermont Ganneau, in a treatise lately published, traces the legend of St. George and the dragon to a very remote antiquity. In the Louvre at Paris he found an Egyptian bas-relief, which he identified as the combat of Horus against Set, or Typhon, in the well-known Egyptian legend. It represents a man on horseback in Roman armour slaying a crocodile with a spear; but for the fact that the rider has a hawk's head, the group might easily be mistaken for the traditional combat of St. George and the dragon. Extending his investigations, M. Ganneau has brought to light some most startling proofs of the connection between the eastern and western mythologies. We have therefore, he considers, evidence as clear and convincing as evidence from deduction can be, that the Egyptian "Horus and Typhon"; the Greek "Perseus and Andromeda"; the "Bel and Dragon" of the Apocrypha; the Archangel Michael of Christian legend who also slays the old dragon, are all one and the same story with that of our own St. George. We pass over the intermediate steps by which he reconciles the divergent names and qualities of the personages identified, and also the ingenious arguments
as to the real meaning of the symbolism in the worship of Dagon the Fish-god.
In all the old romances dealing with feats of chivalry and knight-errantry the dragon plays an essential if not a leading part; and a romance without some dragon or monster was as rare as one without a valiant knight or a beautiful lady. But of all the malignant creatures dreaded of gods and men, the most hateful and wicked is that prime dragon personified by Spenser under the type of the blatant beast," and which confronts his hero, the Red Cross Knight, at every turn: "a dreadful fiend, of gods and men ydrad," who has a thousand tongues, speaks things most shameful, most unrighteous, most untrue, and with his sting steeps them in poison.
As an example of the inception and development of a dragon legend from slender materials, the following is related in Figuer's "World before the Deluge ":
In the city of Klagenfurth, in Carinthia, is a fountain on which is sculptured a monstrous dragon with six feet, and a head armed with a stout horn. According to popular tradition this dragon lived in a cave, whence it issued from time to time to ravage the country. A bold and venturous knight at last kills the monster, paying with his life the forfeit of his rashness. The head of the pretended dragon is preserved in the Hotel de Ville, and this head has furnished the sculptor for a model of the dragon on the fountain. A learned professor of Vienna on a
visit to the city recognised it at a glance as the cranium of the fossil rhinoceros. Its discovery in some cave had probably originated the fable of the knight and the dragon—and all similar legends are capable of some such explanation when we trace them back to their sources and reason the circumstances on which they are founded. The famous bird, the roc, which played so important a part in the myths of the people of Asia, is also believed to have originated in the discovery of some gigantic bones.
Chief among Dragon-slayers of Christian legend we find the following:
St. Philip the Apostle is said to have destroyed a huge dragon at Hierapolis, in Phrygia.
St. Michael, St. George, St. Margaret, Pope Sylvester, St. Samson, Archbishop of Dol; Donatus (fourth century), St. Clement of Metz, all killed dragons—if we may trust old legends.
St. Keyne of Cornwall slew a dragon.
St. Florent killed a terrible dragon who haunted the Loire.
St. Cado, St. Maudet and St. Paull did similar feats in Brittany.
The town of Worms (famous as the place at which the Diet of Worms was held before which the reformer Luther was summoned) owes its name to the "Lind-wurm" or dragon there conquered by the hero Siegfried as related in the "Nibelungen Lied." (See p. 100.)
Drachenfels, on the Rhine (Dragon Rocks), is so called from the same monster; and at Arles and Rouen legends are preserved of victories gained by saints over the Tarasque and Gargouille, both local names for the dragon. St. Martha conquered the fabulous Tarasque of the city of Languedoc, which bears the name of "Tarascon." Gargouille (waterspout) was the great dragon that lived in the Seine, ravaged Rouen, and was slain by St. Romanus, Bishop of Rouen, in the seventh century. The latter name has come down to us in the term "gargoyle," applied to the monstrous heads which often decorate the waterspouts of old churches.
A strange relic of the ancient faith is perpetuated in the remains of early Celtic art in the curiously wrought interlaced monsters which form the chief ornament of ancient Irish crosses, and particularly in the borders and initials of illuminated manuscripts, whose spirals and interminable interlacements of the most complex character, often allied with equally strange colouring, form a style perfectly unique in itself, and unlike any other; the elaborate knots terminating in draconic heads, and with wings and animal extremities in wonderfully ingenious patterns that seem almost beyond the limits of human ingenuity. In the kindred art of Scandinavia we find similar decoration founded on serpentine forms.
Another survival of the dragon myth exists in the name given to some of our fighting men on the introduction of firearms. A kind of blunderbus gave
to the troops who used it the name of "dragoniers," whence is derived the well-known term dragoons. They used to be armed with dragons—i.e., short muskets—which spouted fire, like the fabulous beast so named. The head of a dragon was wrought on the muzzles of these muskets. We have all heard of the Dragonades, a series of persecutions by Louis XIV., which drove many thousands of Protestants out of France—and out of the world. Their object was to root out "heresy." A bishop, with certain ecclesiastics, was sent to see if the heretics would recant; if not they were left to the tender mercies of the Dragonniers, who followed these "ministers of peace and good will to men." The same game of conversion was practised by the Reformed Church upon the Presbyterians of Scotland, with its accompaniment of "dragons let loose"—in which Claverhouse took a leading part.
"In mediæval alchemy the dragon seems to have been the emblem of Mercury; hence the dragon became one of the 'properties' of the chemist and apothecary, was painted upon his drug pots, hung up as his sign, and some dusty stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling in the laboratory had to do service for the monster, And inspire the vulgar with a profound awe of the mighty man who had conquered the vicious reptile." *
When apothecaries’ signs were not derived from heraldry, they were used to typify certain chemical
actions. In an old German work on alchemy one of the plates represents a dragon eating his own tail; underneath are the words which, translated, signify "This is a great wonder and very strange; the dragon contains the greatest medicament," and much more of similar import.
82:* "History of Signboards."