Beastly beauty

18th November 2005 at 00:00
(Photograph) - Karen Hosack explores the drama in this depiction by Rubens of a mighty slaying

Peter Paul Rubens


Born in Siegen, Germany, Rubens was the son of a lawyer and alderman. When he was 10 his family moved to Antwerp, and at 13 he became court page to a countess. In 1592 he started training to be a painter. He served as an apprentice under three artists in Antwerp, qualifying in 1598 as a Master painter of the Antwerp Guild. In 1599 he set off for Italy on a study trip lasting more than eight years. There he was offered a position by the Duke of Mantua where his skills and reputation flourished. After he returned to Antwerp he continued to borrow from, and be inspired by, the great works by other artists, although as time went by his style become increasinglyhis own.

* Rubens: A Master in the Making, until January 15 Book online at:

Tel: 0870 9063891.

There is a fully illustrated exhibition catalogue, priced pound;20 hardback. A programme of free live music by Flemish and Italian composers of the 16th and 17th centuries will be played by musicians from the Royal College of Music every Wednesday until January 11, 6 - 9pm.

'St George and the Dragon', 1606, oil on canvas, 304cm x 256cm by Peter Rubens, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Saint George charges towards the viewer, his arm raised above his head holding a heavy sword. Within seconds the dragon lying before George and his magnificent horse will be violently tamed with a powerful blow. Already writhing in agony, the creature has a broken lance impaled through the roof of its mouth. Its human-like hand is wrenched on the splintered spike whose arrow-shaped tip is shortly to rip open its nose in a bloody mess.

This massive three-metre high painting may have been commissioned for the church of Sant'Ambrogio in Genoa, which was dedicated to Saint George, the patron saint of the city. The artist, Rubens, has carefully placed the dragon's head at the audience's eye-level; standing before the original, you can see that his intention is for the poor beast to look directly at us. As it stares we engage fully with it. Do we dare sympathise with its plight?

It feels as if Rubens doesn't totally subscribe to the traditional reading of "Saint George and the Dragon", with its moral message of good overcoming evil. He may be commenting on how these seemingly opposing themes are actually not always easy to differentiate or separate - or perhaps to Rubens the dragon is not a symbol of the devil, as it is usually interpreted.

We know the story first from The Golden Legend, a popular 13th-century collection of saints' lives, written by Jacobus de Voragine. It starts with the dragon threatening the citizens of Silena in Libya. To appease it they agreed to hand over two of their sheep each day. When the supply of sheep began to run out, they were forced to sacrifice their own people.

The choice was made by drawing lots; one day the lot fell on the King's daughter. The King pleaded with his subjects not to send the princess into the dragon's lair, but they saw no reason why their children could be chosen and not his.

As the princess went to meet her inevitable death, Saint George, the archetypal knight in shining armour, came to her rescue. He had happened to be riding his white steed by the lake where the dragon lived and saw the princess awaiting her fate. With his lance and sword he fought the dragon, injuring it badly enough for the princess to use her belt as a leash around its neck and lead it back to the city "like a little dog". After the citizens were satisfied that the dragon was no longer a threat to their way of life, they killed it.

In the painting, the princess stands on the left-hand side, delicately holding the leg of one of the sacrificial sheep between her fingers; like her, a lamb to the slaughter. She gestures something with her other hand, but it's not entirely clear what she is trying to communicate. This, along with her dress falling off of her shoulder, makes her look defenceless and slightly pathetic. The arch of her neck echoes (in reverse) that of the horse on the other side of the composition, and her hair, like his mane, cascades about her head. Rubens had a passion for both women and horses and here he paints them both as desirable things to be dominated.

Even though today we might think this analogy offensive towards women, our language is still replete with references relating the relationship of men and women to that of men and horses with terms like groom and bridal (taken from bridle, which is part of a horse's harness).

Changes in the composition can be seen by looking at Rubens's preparatory pen and ink wash study, now in the Louvre (www.ucc.iemilmartgrgwstart15l.jpg). The horse's rear end in the original drawing was sat more heavily on the dragon's head, rather than leaping above it. Also, the dragon was first planned in profile, further towards the bottom left-hand corner of the picture, where it would have had a far less dramatic effect on the viewer. Later, on the canvas, Rubens made more modifications. We can clearly see where red paint was applied under the blue sky area near the end of the plumage. This was an alternative position for the red cloak now billowing behind Saint George. Rubens hasn't corrected the reflection of the removed cloak in the armour though, presumably because he thought it balanced with the colour of the horse's reins.

It is the sense of drama in Rubens's work, together with his incredible draughtsmanship, that made him the most successful artist of the 17th century. In an exhibition at the National Gallery, entitled Rubens: A Master in the Making (until January 15), Saint George and other works are used to trace his early career and influences from 1597 to 1614. During this period Rubens spent a great deal of time learning from the masters of Italian art in a tour of discovery. This included studying the techniques of Michelangelo, Raphael and Caravaggio, as well as sketching antique statues such as the Laocoon in the papal sculpture courtyard. The results can be seen in his muscular forms, glowing palette and use of chiaroscuro (light and dark) - all of which are wonderfully realised in Saint George.

Karen Hosack is head of schools education, at the National Gallery

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