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.
9th August 2021
Congratulations to Brandon Chan who came 3rd worldwide in the independent open category at the International Economics Olympiad this summer.
14th September 2021
Inspired by the College’s Vision for the 21st Century which announced a greater prioritisation of entrepreneurship and innovation, we are delighted to announce the launch of Makyth Ventures.
22nd June 2021
Winchester College has entered a new partnership with Andover College to enable them to run a CCF programme for its students.
14th June 2021
On Sunday 13 June, we hosted the premiere of our Sixty Second Cinema film competition, showcasing the creativity and ingenuity of our first year film makers.
13th June 2021
A number of our Community Service projects seek to make an important environmental impact. The teacher leading our rewilding project in Berkshire, Adam Rattray, explains the context and the progress that has already been made.
28th April 2021
A boy in his final year has achieved a near-perfect score in the UK Chemistry Olympiad, and once again will represent his country in the international competition.