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.
30th March 2020
Ode to a Nightingale reminds us of the power of the imagination to triumph over human frailty and disease.
27th March 2020
Whilst we are unable to gather for our Passiontide Service, it is still possible to share the music we would have enjoyed, and find a moment of peace.
27th March 2020
As the Angelus Gallery temporarily closes to visitors, highlights from the latest exhibition can now be viewed online. Winchester's Head of Art reflects on the importance of hosting a community art exhibition.
25th March 2020
For the third in our series of Thoughts for the Day, the Chaplain celebrates the Feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
24th March 2020
The spring equinox is the moment of the year where the scales begin to turn in favour of longer days, and more light. Can we take comfort from the rhythms of nature when the patterns of our own daily routines are so disrupted?
23rd March 2020
'Invictus' was written by a man who, as a child, suffered tuberculosis of the bone, had to have a leg amputated and nearly lost the other. Henley had to endure much and this poem is about the spirit which underpins endurance. As pupils continue their learning remotely, Div Dons will send them a 'Thought for the Day' during term-time, carefully chosen to inspire reflection and discussion. These selections, alongside a brief introduction, will be shared here daily.