A dragon roars as a knight on a white horse attacks with a lance. Meanwhile, an ice-cold princess seems in control of the situation, she has the dragon on a silken leash, unconcerned by the beast’s teeth and claws. In the background is a rocky cave, presumably the dragon’s lair, and a landscape that stretches far into the distance. Swirling dark clouds give dramatic action to the painting, sharpened by the converging diagonals of horse and dragon.
This small-scale painting, painted around 1470, is a gem of the National Gallery’s Early Renaissance collection. The story comes from the legend of St. George, as told in Jacobus de Voragine’s Lives of the Saints. In this 13th-century account, St. George, symbol of Christian virtue, killed a dragon, representing the Devil, and rescued a princess of the city of Silene, Libya.
Most of us pay little attention to art of the Early Renaissance, but move swiftly on to the Grand Men of Renaissance Art: Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo. And even those who love this period have to admit that St. George’s horse looks more like a rocking horse than a dragon-fighter, that the princess is so drained of blood she looks scarcely alive, and that St. George is far too young and beardless to take on anything so dangerously reptilian.
But this is the joy of the painting: it is fantastic and it makes us smile. Art historians tell us that the painting represents an important step in the development of Florentine single-point perspective; Renaissance costume historians that the princess’s dress shows us the bridal wear of the Florentine merchant elite of the 15th century. None of this matters much; it is a painting of the nursery that has delighted viewers for over five hundred years.
Right now, we all want a knight in armour to arrive and save the day, a syringe of coronavirus antidote in hand rather than a lance. We learned yesterday that over 40 clinics are working night and day to come up with a cure; let’s hope that one of them does, the shining knight of Uccello’s imagination brought fully up to date.
But while we wait, let’s look at things, and look at them with fresh eyes. Kenneth Clark, the school’s most famous art historian son, was always encouraging people to look at, not read about, works of art. During the war, as Director of the National Gallery, he allowed one painting each month to come back to London from Wales (where the collection was in storage). He thought that the benefit to public morale of enjoying something beautiful and civilising outweighed the risk of German bombs.
Right now, we cannot go to Florence, Paris, Athens or Rome; we cannot see their art galleries and magnificent collections. But we can enjoy them: with a computer and
Internet access, we can virtually experience the treasures of the world, without worrying too much about understanding them.
20th October 2020
In the final instalment of our focus on Wordsworth, in this 250th anniversary year of his birth, we reveal a previously undiscovered treasure within the school's collection.
13th October 2020
The texts pupils study in Div, English and other lessons provide springboards for discussion about a range of topics. Ensuring there is content that is both diverse and international in outlook encourages depth of study and understanding.
9th October 2020
As the school considers how it celebrates the diversity of its community, Black History Month provides an opportunity to focus on how pupils are learning about different voices and cultures, and their inseparability from our "own" histories and experiences.
29th September 2020
To mark the 250th anniversary of the poet's birth, Fellows' Librarian Richard Foster explains the importance of one of the school's latest acquisitions.
19th September 2020
Science School has a diverse collection of fascinating objects, from an 18th-century microscope, fossils and taxidermy birds, to apparatus used to teach physics in the early 20th century. Twenty-four of the most interesting and unusual objects from the collection are now online.
26th June 2020
There is always something to celebrate at Winchester College and the last couple of years have been particularly full of significant anniversaries - the opening of the boarding houses and the conversion of Commoners into classrooms - and this summer sees the 150th anniversary of the opening of Moberly Library.