The story of St George defeating the evil Dragon and at the same time rescuing a young princess is a popular subject in the history of art. It is found on many religious icons (often minus the princess); other notable paintings of the legend include those by Paolo Uccello, Tintoretto and Rubens, all featuring the same imagery of courageous St George lunging at the Dragon on horseback while the rescued maiden looks on (and, in the case of Tintoretto, runs dramatically right towards the viewer). The tale has strong Christian overtones: St George, an early Christian knight, slays the Dragon in an act of Christian heroism — a dragon also being visually similar to the Serpent of Eden — and apparently caused a mass conversion as a result. For the Pre-Raphaelites, however, it was an ideal tale of romantic medieval chivalry and was lyrically illustrated by Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti among others.
Let’s start with Burne-Jones. From 1865-67 he painted a series of seven paintings representing the legend, beginning with the Princess and finishing with her return to the King’s palace after her rescue. The seven paintings, commissioned by the popular Victorian artist Myles Burket Foster, are now separated in various galleries around the world, and the climactic episode of St George slaying the Dragon is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Given the drama of the legend Burne-Jones’s painting is remarkably serene, owing in part to the Princess’s rather nonchalant facial expression and the quiet pastoral surroundings. The Dragon itself is probably the weakest aspect of the picture and resembles a larger-than-average lizard or, strangely, a reptilian mole, rather than a gigantic, fire-breathing monster; it is a minor nuisance easily cut down by St George’s sword instead of a deadly threat. Still, the painting has that haunting, dreamlike quality so characteristic of Burne-Jones, and when viewed close-up one can see the straining tendons of St George’s sword hand and the look of determination in his furrowed brow which adds some tension to the picture.
An earlier painting in Burne-Jones’s series, the first, showing the Princess reading in the palace rose garden before her selection to be sacrificed to the Dragon, shifts the focus to the legend’s female character in a way that feels refreshingly different from the more typical emphasis on the heroic, manly St George. She is even given a name, Sabra, probably derived from a ballad about St George in Thomas Percy’s influential collection, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), in which the Princess is named Sabra and her father King Ptolemy. Burne-Jones’s Sabra is a delicate, even androgynous beauty, her eyelids drooping as if in sadness at the terror which has befallen her native land; just beyond the low rose trellis looms a dark tangled forest, perhaps foreshadowing her perilous role as the Dragon’s next victim. The painting also displays Burne-Jones’s medievalism, with its shallow depth, decorative flowers and the crisp folds of Princess Sabra’s long, gothicised dress. Although the city terrorised by the Dragon was traditionally thought to be in Africa, the Princess’s skin is pale like that of an English woman. Four paintings later she is tied to a tree to await her death.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti seems to have been far more interested in later events, when Princess Sabra and St George fall in love following the death of the Dragon. In Thomas Percy’s version of the legend their love was discovered by the non-Christian King Ptolemy, who subsequently banished St George in anger. Rossetti’s watercolour St George and Princess Sabra, painted from 1861-62 a few years before Burne-Jones’s series, shows St George washing the Dragon’s blood from his hands in his upturned helmet, while outside the citizens rejoice and carry the dead beast through the streets. The Princess Sabra kneeling to kiss his bloodied hands distinctly resembles Elizabeth Siddal, Rossetti’s wife and muse who died just shortly after the painting was completed; they share the same heavy-lidded eyes and streaming red hair. I particularly like the warm, rich colours of this painting, the way the vivid green of Sabra’s medieval-style dress blends beautifully with George’s golden tunic. Incidentally the tunic is a dalmatic, a type of Christian liturgical gown, which clearly references, along with the golden halo, George’s purity and future sainthood. Also rather lovely are the walls of the interior which are patterned with small scrolls and trees in full leaf, lending the painting a decorative feel and reminiscent of William Morris’s early attempt at tapestry weaving in 1857.
Another watercolour by Rossetti from 1864 also portrays St George with Princess Sabra. It is based upon an earlier design by Rossetti for a series of six stained-glass windows which, like Burne-Jones’s paintings, illustrate the St George legend. Both the watercolour and the original stained-glass drawing can be compared below. Although titled The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra, the scene feels more like a celebration of the Dragon’s death, particularly because of the lively trumpeters and the presence of the monster’s severed head in the foreground. (In Thomas Percy’s ballad St George and Sabra did eventually get married, though not until the Princess had eloped to England with him.) St George sits beside Sabra beneath an archway in the centre of a symmetrical, tightly-arranged composition; the figures to their left and right are presumably King Ptolemy and his wife, and the King’s melancholy expression hints at his disapproval of his daughter’s love for St George. The jewel-like colours, the heraldic symbols on the trumpet flags and the ornamental patterns on the Queen’s cloak and the tapestry along the back wall are typical of Rossetti’s romantic medievalism, and indeed the picture belongs to that distinctive category in Rossetti’s oeuvre of watercolours with medieval subject matters.
The legend of St George afforded the Pre-Raphaelites the opportunity to indulge in their love of chivalric romance. They seem less concerned with deep Christian symbolism and more with evoking the atmosphere of the Middle Ages, and they offer new and unusual interpretations of a well-worn story.
- Rossetti’s six stained-glass window designs for ‘The Story of St George and the Dragon’ on the Rossetti Archive
- Another Rossetti watercolour depicting The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra (1857) on the Rossetti Archive. In a video for the 2012 Tate exhibition’s trip to Moscow, Alison Smith discusses the watercolour and Rossetti’s innovative painting techniques.