Carpaccio’s Dragon’s Blood

Top: Carpaccio, St. George and the Dragon (1502)
Bottom: Detail of the dragon in Carpaccio's St. George and the Dragon

Carpaccio’s remarkable series of wall decorations on the saga of St. George in a small Venetian scuola captured my attention twelve years ago, at the start of my own quixotic quest to convince the art world that the subject of true art is art itself, or more precisely, the creative moment. St. George, as I will explain one day, played a large part in my journey. On that day, though, I was attracted by the blood apparently pouring from the dragon’s jaw though the actual wound from which it spills is unclear (see above). Is it inside or outside its mouth? I was intrigued by the blood itself which looks more like paint running down a wall than blood oozing from a wound. Blood devotions had become hugely popular over the course of the prior two centuries, beginning in Northern Europe but by 1500 were widespread in Italy too. Artists responded to the near-hysteria by making drops of Christ’s blood more and more life-like, thick three-dimensional pellets even in paintings.1 Yet there is no depth or substance to the dragon’s blood here. It is what it is: red paint running down a wall.

Carpaccio, of course, would have been well aware that the setting and location of most art, including most of his own, was the artist’s mind. That’s why, it seemed to me, the foreground of this landscape, strewn with body parts and the skeletal remains of the dragon’s lunch, almost certainly resembled the unswept floor of Carpaccio’s own studio with its plaster casts of human body parts and real bones used for sketching. A slightly later engraving of an artist’s studio confirms the link with anatomical models and an abandoned skull strewn horizontally across the foreground. (Click link here for illustration.)

Combat with demons, moreover, like St. George’s with the dragon typify the creative struggle that all masters go through to develop a masterpiece. Greatness does not come easily. So, in painting St. George’s dragon-fight, Carpaccio might have imagined his own mind chewing on numerous different poses, figural interactions and compositional elements. Some he might have spat out like the dragon; others he would have digested and used. He could also have felt like St. George executing the painting with his lance or brush, forcing order onto creative chaos. George, in this reading, represents the logical part of the saintly artist’s mind. Dragons had long symbolized a chthonic force guarding the earth’s mineral and agricultural wealth. On St. George’s Day at the start of spring people celebrated the reappearance of some of that wealth. Thus the dragon was not necessarily as evil as many nowadays suppose. It may sound anachronistic but he could have represented, at least for artists, the hidden wealth of their minds, what today we would call the sub-conscious.  

Years later I came across an engraving of the Holy Family resting in front of a dragon tree, a plant not native to Europe. It was while researching that tree that I came across “dragon’s blood”, the bright red resin that oozes from openings in the tree’s bark and which for many centuries has been used as pigment for red paint in Europe. It still is today. Even if chemical analysis was to confirm that Carpaccio’s dragon’s blood used a different dye for its red pigment, the link in any other master’s mind would be self-evident. Carpaccio’s dragon’s blood running down the wall like red paint is “dragon’s blood.” 

 

1. Caroline Walker Bynum, Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Germany and Beyond (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press) 2007, pp. 2-8. 154-5

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