Schongauer’s St. George and the Dragon (c.1480)

In Martin Schongauer’s woodcut of St. George and the Dragon, the monster holding the broken point of the saint’s lance is an alter ego of the artist. No-one seems to have noticed in print before that the unusually upright dragon resembles a sculptor, chisel in hand, glancing over his shoulder at his model. In fairness though, without knowing that ‘every painter paints himself' and the essential ideas of a mystical mind, few could have imagined this in the first place. The viewer needs imagination too, of course; without it, one can see only the surface.

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Martin Schongauer, St. George and the Dragon (c. 1480) Engraving

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In Schongauer's day the Latin pictor (painter) described both painters and sculptors while the word sculpit was later used on prints to suggest the action of an engraver.2 The sculpting monster is “the artist”. Once recognized, its large round eyes and anthropomorphic paws become significant, as does the severe anamorphic distortion of the cave just below the point of the dragons’ “chisel”. The distortion appears nowhere else; thus the dragon’s tool separates the "mental image" below it, as in the artist’s imagination, from the illusion of reality above, as in the finished work of art. Thus this scene, somewhat paradoxically, shows a moment in its own making.

 

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Detail of Schongauer's St. George and the Dragon

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Schongauer’s identification with the dragon is further confirmed by the monster's tail which curls down towards the artist’s monogram, its loop echoing the “+” mark between his initials. This is meaningful because, after the loop, the tail almost touches the horse’s leg. Thus the tail really is a “+” mark linking the dragon on one side with the saint and his horse on the other. The connection suggests that each group is an aspect of the artist’s mind, combining the chthonic power of the dragon with the rationality of the saint. Once imagined as such, further evidence can be found in the tip of the dragon’s tail, bi-forked like the top end of the letter S in Schongauer’s monogram.

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Detail of Schongauer's St. George and the Dragon

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The marks are intentional referring to the forked shape of a serpent’s or devil's tongue. So are the two separated plumes of the saint's helmet which, when combined with his raised arm, form the letter S for Schongauer too. Thus the tip of the large S above and the small S below each imitate a devil's tongue. Schongauer seems to accept that the chthonic powers of chaos, dismissed as evil and bad by the Church, are an essential element of the creative mind which when combined with the reason and sanctity of St. George, will reveal Truth. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Schongauer's St. George and the Dragon

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One last piece of evidence - that the "good" saint and the "evil" dragon are metamorphic forms of the same mind - is the metal plate draped over the knight’s shoulder, a characteristically draconic form that is similar here, for instance, to the formation of the dragon’s wing. Dragon and saint are one. The actual moment is significant too because it appears that the print is almost “complete” with only the space below the tip of the dragon’s “chisel” to finish. Thus, in a few moments the dragon will be dead and the print will be done, a metaphorical correspondence common in art and literature: the moment that a work of art is “finished”, its creator and/or principal protagonist dies.

Captions for image(s) above:

Martin Schongauer, St. George and the Dragon (c. 1480)

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Notes:

1. See the entry Over-the-Shoulder Poses

2. Anthony Grafton, Leon Battisti Alberti (New York: Hill and Wang) 2000, p. 131

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 17 Sep 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.