The art essay of the month
Saint George and the Dragon (2011) by Leonard Porter (b. 1963)
Saint George and the Dragon (2011)
Though very little is certain about the actual life of Saint George, his legend is dramatic: a noble soldier saves the life of a princess by slaying a bloodthirsty dragon while simultaneously freeing a town’s inhabitants from its tyrannical demands. But beneath the romantic tale lies the story of a saint, not merely the gallantry of a quixotic hero. As a soldier who faced persecution for his Christian faith, George died at the hands of Roman authorities in the early 4th century, and his heroic virtue was celebrated by the ancient Church almost immediately, earning him the title megalomartyr, or great martyr, whose suffering and death includes spectacular miracles and conversions. Scholarly consensus asserts without doubt that the real George existed, but verifiable details of his life have remained elusive. Even at his canonization in 494, Pope Gelasius described him as a saint who was “justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God.”
Man, myth, and legend
As the patron of soldiers and one of the most intriguing saints of the Christian tradition, George’s legends have inspired artists and poets for centuries. The earliest record of his life comes from 5th-century texts that characterize him as a Roman citizen of Greek parentage who became a solider in the city of Nicomedia in modern-day Turkey. His martyrdom occurred in 303, the year of Emperor Diocletian’s purging of Christians from the Roman army, and pious sources speak of Saint George enduring astounding tortures with such faith that many others publicly professed their Christianity—including, some say, Diocletian’s wife, Empress Alexandra, earning her a death sentence as well.
The story of George’s battle with the dragon came later, becoming widely known in Europe through the 13th-century Golden Legend, a sometimes fanciful set of medieval narratives of saints’ lives. As the story goes, a pestilence-breathing dragon lived in a cave in marshland near the Libyan city of Silene. To keep the monster at bay, the townspeople offered it two sheep each day, but eventually only human sacrifice satisfied its hunger. On one occasion, the king’s daughter was chosen by lot as the day’s sacrifice. As she was led to the marsh dressed as a bride, George happened to be passing by and, springing into action, slayed the beast. Impressed by what they had witnessed, the townspeople agreed to be baptized as Christians. In great humility, George refused the king’s offer of a great monetary reward, asking that it instead be given to the poor.
A modern telling of an old story
A new rendition of the story was painted in 2011 by Leonard Porter, a living master inspired by the artistic heritage of the ancient world. Though trained as an abstract expressionist, he now engages the great representational methods and perennial questions that have fascinated Western thinkers for centuries. In particular, he finds inspiration in the intersection of myth and history, especially situations which bond people in a common fate, ideas which feature prominently in the story of Saint George.
Porter’s Saint George and the Dragon is “classical” not only because of its representational method, but also in its engagement with profound themes and establishment of a perfected stillness amidst dramatic activity. The painting portrays the climactic moment of engagement with the dragon, who has just emerged from his cave in a chaotic, swampy landscape. The deadly spear threatens the beast’s neck and the horse rears on its hind legs, its mane and tail filled with nervous energy. The rescued maiden appears on the winding path in the middle ground behind, clinging anxiously to a rocky cliff. Yet all is still, and George’s face shows a determined, heavenly calm, reinforced by his perfected armor where blue indicates the heavens and gold the things of eternal value.
Porter chose to stay true to the saint’s origins, filling the image with details from the life of an ancient soldier. The pose of horse and rider was inspired by a scene from the Hellenistic sarcophagus of Alexander the Great, and the saddle was inspired by a sculpture on the ancient Roman Column of Trajan. George’s footwear shows lions’ faces because ancient Romans used cat skins to line their boots. The design of George’s winged helmet was taken from an ancient Greek vase painting of Perseus, who also slayed a monster and rescued a maiden, giving the viewer a chance to ponder the Christian fulfillment of ancient wisdom.
George as defender of the Church
Despite its archaeological accuracy, Porter’s painting is poetic as well, allowing imagination to bring forth the Christian meaning that makes the story worth knowing. Light and landscape reinforce the themes of self-sacrificial triumph over death exemplified in George’s heroic tale. The dragon, like Satan, emerges from a hellish cave and seems to have dominion over a disturbed earthly realm of broken trees and branches. As the landscape rises, it becomes more heavenly, and two bridges signify the path of the Christian journey toward the light. The winding lower bridge stands between heaven and earth, and here the maiden personifies the Church, which bridges the gap between the perfection of heaven and the fallenness of earth. Like the maiden, the earthly Church needs George to defend her from the wiles of the devil, yet the maiden-Church is not helpless. Indeed, she leads him forward along the path to heaven above, signified by the upper bridge of finely worked stone as a portal to a light-filled place beyond. Like Christ, the maiden is willing to offer herself for others, yet is rescued from death.
Even filled with fanciful medieval accretions, the story of Saint George proves more than a simple tale worthy of romance novels. Like all saints, George makes the reality of Christ known in the world. He generously defends the Church while simultaneously submitting to her headship, fighting the power of evil while imitating Christ’s selfless love for others. As such he answers the baptismal call to be an alter Christus, another Christ—and inspires us today as much as he did in the 4th century.
Denis R. McNamara
Associate Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Beauty and Culture at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.
Saint George and the Dragon (2011), Leonard Porter (b. 1963), private collection, USA. © leonardporter.com.