After a brief hiatus, the painting of the day returns with Uccello's St. George and the Dragon (c.1456), a dramatic rendition of an episode from the life of St. George, as well as the prototypical hero narrative in miniature (monster kidnaps girl, boy kills monster, saves girl). This painting has had an interesting history, as it was stolen by the Nazis and wound up in a Swiss bank vault for several years, before being deposited in the National Gallery in London. It was then thought to be a fraud, as it seemed stylistically inconsistent with Uccello's other work, and great scholarly debates raged over its authenticity. Fortunately, it is now considered a bona fide Uccello, as well as a priceless contribution to Renaissance Italian art.
And what a strange painting it is! Though the story seems simple enough, observe some of the smaller details: a swirling cloud hovers over the hero, as if demonstrating divine intervention--or an even worse danger to come! A waning crescent moon hangs overhead, despite the glorious light of the painting, which suggests that a second moon is shining somewhere overhead (or perhaps the glory of his conquest brings its own illumination). Also, note how statuesque and lifeless the two people are compared to the detail and beauty of the two beasts. St. George seems positively bored by his conquest, while the princess seems to be locked in a formal dance, gesturing politely to the dragon as if to say, "perhaps you should kindly withdraw from the fray." Nor does St. George seem to spring into action, his body frozen into a conqueror's pose almost against his will (on second thought, it looks like he's fallen asleep!).
The horse, however, is captured rearing up and ready to spring to the defense of the girl--much more so than his rider! Uccello lavished loving detail on the horse, as indeed he did in many of his other paintings, notably The Battle of San Romano, where the horses dance and prance across the battlefield, the people mere footnotes to their ballet. However, the true star of the painting is the dragon itself, whose grotesque face captures defiance and pain, and evokes the viewer's compassion. He's been speared in the nose, and blood is dripping out of his mouth. This seems all the more cruel since the princess is in no immediate danger--indeed, she is leading the dragon forward with a leash! Some critics (and initially myself) have suggested that she is actually chained up to the dragon protectively, but her gesture seems to indicate leading/guiding, rather than servitude. I think this could help explain her slightly annoyed appearance, which could also be saying, "thanks, but I had this all under control, no thanks to you!" So perhaps the Princess has rescued herself (or never needing rescuing in the first place!).
The dragon is also a wonderful creation of fantasy, with its butterfly-like wings and beautifully rendered claws (the poor guy only has two appendages--he's basically defenseless on the ground; good going, Georgie!). While this painting is the basic hero archetype, Uccello makes us question what story is being told. Who is the hero? George? The Princess? The Dragon? What is the relationship between the Princess and the Dragon? And is this a good deed--or an act of evil? The dark, spinning cloud might suggest that he's actually committed a sin of sorts, and God (or the gods) will punish him for his hubris. Not surprisingly, this painting has inspired many other works of art and literature, including U.A. Fanthorpe's poem, "Not My Best Side," which is linked here for your reading pleasure:http://english.emory.edu/class…/paintings&poems/uccello.html)