This week I discovered Albrecht Altdorfer’s ‘Saint George and the Dragon.’
I’ve been inspired before by Uccello’s version, which heralded the Renaissance and redrew the rules of painting with its extreme perspective as below.
But Altdorfer’s small panel painted in 1510 was revolutionary in its own right. It was the intermediate ‘evolutionary form’ between portrait and landscape. Within a decade of ‘Saint George!, Altdorfer was painting and printing some of the first “true” landscapes in Northern Europe.
The dense forest dominates a tiny Saint George looking diffidently at the rather uninspiring dragon. His horse doesn’t fancy it much, and the whole scene – robbed of the customary ‘damsel in distress’ of Uccello’s has a ‘more in sadness than in anger’ feel.
Here’s what Daily Art App has to say:
This tiny panel (22.5cm x 28cm) is filled with the ferocious wildness of the forest, from which the lumpy, froglike dragon seems to emerge, slobbering with primordial slime.
In a little window where the trees open, the light of the outside world burns through. St. George is not in the act of killing the dragon—rather, he seems to be looking down on it with pity. His lance hangs limply at his side.
Altdorfer’s George looks tired, his armor is dingy, and the horse seems to shrink back in disgust at the sight of the formless, murky dragon.
The figures become lost in the ferocious foliage (ferocious like the dragon traditionally should be) which threatens to choke out the figures themselves (who should traditionally be the focus), and they all seem to merge into monochrome.
The knight seems to be musing on something within himself which he knows he must slay in order to leave the dark forest of the unconscious and emerge
Although Uccello’s is one of my favourite paintings (forever associated, in my mind, with the buzz and bustle of London due to its place on wall panels at Charing Cross tube) Altdorfer’s is more my type of Saint George.
A thing to be done but not revelled in. A certain amount of ambiguity, a fearful horse and a lumpen unfortunate dragon – a moment of pause and perhaps uncertainty.
Few true acts of ‘bravery’ in real life are as clear cut as Uccello’s. Most have the ambiguity and uncertainty of Altdorfer’s Saint George – which usually makes them all the braver.