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The bronze original is located in the National Gallery in Prague. Once, it was in the third courtyard of the Prague Castle, where a bronze copy is now located. The original was probably created in 1373 and was funded by the Bohemian King and Roman Emperor Charles IV of Luxembourg, who was at the peak of his power at the time.

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The bronze original is located in the National Gallery in Prague. Once, it was in the third courtyard of the Prague Castle, where a bronze copy is now located. The original was probably created in 1373 and was funded by the Bohemian King and Roman Emperor Charles IV of Luxembourg, who was at the peak of his power at the time. One could learn about the time of creation of this piece from the shield of St. George, which existed until 1749 and did not survive to the present. The inscription, written in 1677 by Bohuslav Balbín, read: “AD MCCCLXXIII hoc opus imaginis S. Georgia per Martinum et Georgium de Clussenberch conflatum est”, meaning: “In the year of our Lord 1373, this is a representation of St. George by Martin and George from Cluj”. Balbín’s account of the inscription is probably true, because the sculptors noted in the inscription are recorded in sources, and, in the 3rd quarter of the 14th century Cluj,was, in fact, an important founding centre.

Bibliography:

  1. Jan Bažant, Papež, císař a svatý Jiří na Pražském hradě, "Listy philologické / Folia philologica", vol. 117: 1994, No. 3/4, pp. 216–225.
  2. Karel IV., Císař with Boží milosti. Kultura a umění za vlády Lucemburků 13471437, ed.Jiří Fajt, Praha 2006, cat. No. 77, pp. 229–230.
  3. České umění gotické 13501420, Praha 1970, pp. 136–137.
  4. Albert Kutal, Socha .sv. Jiří na Hradčanech a Itálie[in:] Classica atque mediaevalia Jaroslao Ludvíkovský octogenario oblata, Brno 1975, pp. 199–207.
  5. idem, Gotické sochařství, "Dějepis českého výtvarného umění", vol. 1/1: 1984, pp. 216–283 (254–256).

Elaborated by Adam Spodaryk (Editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums),
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

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The history of the collection of plaster casts from the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków

The collection of plaster casts at the Museum of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków currently includes 23 exhibits and is one of three collections of this type in Kraków. The other two belong to the Jagiellonian University and the Kraków University of Technology. The collection of the Museum of the Academy of Fine Arts was first established at the time when the future art school was being created under the auspices of the Jagiellonian University.

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The collection of plaster casts at the Museum of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków currently includes 23 exhibits and is one of three collections of this type in Kraków. The other two belong to the Jagiellonian University and the Kraków University of Technology. The collection of the Museum of the Academy of Fine Arts was first established at the time when the future art school was being created under the auspices of the Jagiellonian University. In Poland, apart from the collections amassed in Kraków, there is a significant Stanisław August Poniatowski’s collection, gathered by the ruler for the purpose of establishing the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. This collection, supplied with other casts, is now located in the Old Orangery at Łazienki Park in Warsaw.
The largest of the cast collections in Kraków belongs to the Jagiellonian University. It consists of 88 antique sculptures, in addition to which the collections of the Jagiellonian University also include copies of medieval and renaissance pieces of art. The smallest collection, consisting of 15 casts, is owned by the Faculty of Architecture of the Kraków University of Technology.
It is impossible to speak about the collection of casts without mentioning the formation of the future Academy, because the creation of the collection of plaster copies is closely connected with the development of the academic methods of artistic education, and the set preserved to this day serves as the foundation of the ever-expanding collection of works of art at the Academy in Kraków. The plaster casts were originally used as teaching aids. During the early years of their studies, the students made drawing and painting studies of the plaster casts. They were also used to teach the casting techniques used in sculpting: students took advantage of casts from plaster figures, which was practiced until recently.
The beginnings of the collection of plaster casts at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków are associated with the first attempts to found a painting school in Kraków. With the rector’s consent, in 1766, The statutes or acts and laws of the noble Painting Congregation at the Prominent Kraków Academy under the title of Saint Luke[1] were proclaimed. They defined the aims and methods of teaching painting, as well as specified its position with regard to academic and creative activities. Painters who were members of the Congregation were given a classroom for their needs at a school coming under the supervision the University, owned by Bartłomiej Nowodworski (Gimnazjum św. Anny). This was the place where plaster casts of sculptures, imported from Rome and intended for copying by students, were brought. The first post-partition years were not favourable to establishing an independent arts school. The situation of the Congregation did not change until 1815, when — by virtue of a decision of the Vienna Congress — the semi-autonomous Free City of Kraków was established.
In 1818, two painters, Józef Peszka and Józef Brodowski, developed two independent projects of creating an
arts school, which they then presented to the Organizational Committee.[2] Upon consideration of the projects, the Commission rendered a decision to establish the School of Drawing and Painting under the Department of Literature of the Faculty of Philosophy at the Jagiellonian University, whose organizational structure was based on Brodowski’s plan, modelled on the statutes of foreign academies, including the Vienna Academy. Initially, there were only two faculties within the school’s structure: the Faculty of Drawing, led by Józef Peszka and the Faculty of Painting, led by Józef Brodowski. A little later, the Faculty of Sculpture was opened, whose supervision was entrusted to Józef Riedlinger from Vienna. The establishment of an arts school gave rise to the need to find teaching aids necessary for drawing, copying, and teaching about styles and proportions in arts in general. To this end, a decision was made to import plaster casts of the most famous ancient and medieval sculptures. The School’s limited funds did not allow for the purchase of casts of the best quality. Therefore, the majority of the purchased casts were not copies of the original sculptures or original matrices, but of already existing casts.

The first casts were procured by Józef Peszka in 1818 in Warsaw for a sum of 1,356 Polish Zlotys. Józef Brodowski made purchases amounting to 2,000 Polish Zlotys in Vienna at a similar time. The following year, while in Vienna, Józef Riedlinger purchased casts from the collection of count Joseph Deym von Stritez
[3] A substantial collection of plaster casts accumulated, thanks to these purchases, was deposited in a building at Grodzka Street, due to a shortage of space. Due to the bad conditions predominating there and the lack of proper care, the plaster casts deteriorated rapidly and had to be repaired. A few of them were most likely seriously damaged, because, in 1822–1823, similar copies were already sought after. In 1822, there were 23 casts in the School’s collection. At that time, efforts were made to bring in new casts from Rome, but, ultimately, the funds were insufficient. In 1825, the University Council again noticed the poor condition of casts, which resulted in the purchase of 24 new figures in Vienna, for the sum of 4,537.34 Polish Zlotys. In 1826, for the sake of proper storing and exhibition, pedestals for the sculptures were also bought.
In subsequent years, the Academy of Fine Arts became a separate faculty of the University. In its newly drafted statute, there were guidelines for teaching, based on copying ancient figures. This applied to second grade students. The next set of castings was purchased by Wojciech Stattler, a painting professor who, while staying in Rome in 1830, bought several casts for money donated by the local Polish community during a fund-raising event. In the 1830s, a supervisory body called Kuratoria Generalna,[4] was dissolved and supervision over the Academy was taken over by the Great University Council,[5] on whose request a committee was appointed with a view to reorganizing the school. Its members included, among others, Józef Brodowski, Józef Peszka, Wojciech Stattler and Józef Szmelcer. On 28 January 1833, a new statute of the School was approved, which — although developed by Jan Nepomucen Bizański — was presented by Rector Alojzy Rafał Estreicher as his own. The new curriculum defined the role of plaster casts in the education process, specifying their use during particular years of study. First year students were supposed to create casts on the basis of drawings, paintings, and engravings depicting still lifes and ancient works of art. Education began with drawing geometric figures, then individual parts of the body, followed by sections of the head, and finally, the proportions of the entire human figure. Second-grade students made contour drawings of human heads and during the winter season, under the light of lamps, a chiaroscuro drawings of plaster figures, the skeleton, and musculature. The students also drew works depicting still-life, copied compositions from paintings, and learned perspective drawing, lithography, and etching. Third year students made a precise, full-figure chiaroscuro drawing of a real-life model, including the portrayal of facial features.[6]
In 1833, as a result of the reorganizational committee’s activity, the School of Drawing and Painting was separated from the University and incorporated into the Technical Institute. It then lost its academic status and its operating conditions deteriorated considerably. This event marked the end of the first stage of the School's operation, during which teaching was based primarily on copying images and plaster casts.
Due to the modest funds of the Technical Institute, the condition of the plaster casts collection gradually deteriorated. The casts did not undergo maintenance, and the collection was not supplemented with new purchases but only with copies made by students. The casts were still used for educational purposes at that time:
“First grade students should paint oil-coloured antique heads (grey), that is, essentially, in the natural colour of plaster, the student imitates as precisely as possible both the outer shapes, as well as the chiaroscuro or colour, the semblance thereof, making all of the above properly illuminated, because imitating the truth in such a way would lead them gradually with no hindrance to developing a strong sense of the sheer coloration of the human body from a real-life model.[7]
Second-grade students were obliged to paint individual parts of the body in a similar way, in different positions and foreshortenings. At that time, in 1838, the School had 44 plaster castings that were used for educational purposes.
In the following years, despite the unfavourable political situation after the shut-down of the Free City of Kraków and the great fire of Kraków in 1850, the library and art collections of the School of Painting and Sculpture continued to grow. Numerous gifts were received, and teaching aids were purchased from the meagre funds of the Technical Institute and from Kraków's social insurance. In the years 1864–1865, the School had 72 antiques, 27 plaster casts, over 180 drawings; while in 1870: 350 sculptures and casts, 180 paintings and 1,552 drawings. In the School, the use of live models has become more and more popular, which, at the same time, reduced the role of casts in the didactic process.
After Galicia was granted autonomy, there was a revival with regard to artistic and educational activities in Kraków. At that time, the Archaeological Institute was established at the University's Faculty of Philosophy, which, at the initiative of the founder, Prof. Józef Łepkowski, by way of purchases and donations, was enriched by many original monuments and plaster casts acquired in Vienna.
An important event in the university's history was the exclusion of the School of Drawing and Painting from the Technical Institute, as a result of which, in 1873, it became an independent School of Fine Arts, and its director was Jan Matejko. According to Matejko's original project, the School was to be divided into three divisions: painting, drawing and sculpture. However, the department of sculpture was not opened until 1881, due to the Statute from 1876, approved by the authorities, which provided for the existence of only two branches. In the “curriculum of modelling with initial education in sculpting”, developed by Walery Gadomski in 1881, we can read the following: “students of the first and second departments use plaster casts and patterns, and, after passing these courses, devoted sculptors sculpt “the heads and figures from a live man.” In 1884, Izydor Jabłoński, in the presented drawing curriculum in department II, recommended the use of comparative studies of antiques with nude academic figures, so that the student “would develop a sense of classical aesthetics”.[8] He also recommended studying nude figures with the position of the model changing every day, so that “the students are able to capture his movements and proportions within two hours.”[9] Florian Cynk, meanwhile, pointed out in the study curriculum for department IV, that, when transitioning from drawing to painting, the best rests are yielded by analysing a painting study of a white head made of plaster, because it can be made using the technique of value modelling with the help of white and black paint.
In 1879, the edifice of today's Academy of Fine Arts was erected, which resulted in the improved conditions of the premises. However, there was a lack of funds for new teaching aids and maintenance of the existing collection of castings. Out of 377 plaster ones, 268 were damaged. With regards to the library and the collection of antiques, the situation was similar. After the first ten years of the School's operation, most of the collection lost its educational use. As a result, small purchases were made, while consulting the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. There was also a demand for castings of women's statues, because, back then, the practice of drawing female models had not yet been implemented. During Matejko's tenure, the Academy's collection included, among others, a copy of the statue of Venus Kallipygos which, translated literally, means Venus with beautiful buttocks. At that time, the Institute of History of Art, which started collecting plaster castings, was established at the Jagiellonian University. Among others things, the University’s collections were supplied with a part of the collection of plaster castings from the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków: in 1908, 22 sculpture casts were bought from the Academy.
After the death of Jan Matejko in 1893, Władysław Łuszczkiewicz served a two-year term, and, in 1895, Julian Fałat became the director, who, then, in the years 1905–1909, held the post of the rector of the Academy of Fine Arts. Fałat's greatest achievement should have been the transformation of the School of Fine Arts into the Academy of Fine Arts, and consequently the acquisition of the academic status lost in 1833. This took place in 1900. During Fałat's tenure,the most outstanding artists of Young Poland were appointed to the positions of professors at the Academy of Fine Art: Jacek Malczewski, Leon Wyczółkowski, Jan Stanisławski, Teodor Axentowicz, Stanisław Wyspiański, Józef Mehoffer and Konstanty Laszczka.
In 1906, a new statute was approved, which provided for major changes to the existing education system. The role of castings was marginalised, the focus was shifted to drawing on the basis of a live model, including a female one. Plaster casts were still used at the Faculty of Sculpture and later the Faculty of Architecture. In 1912, the idea of ​​organising a museum of plaster casting at the Academy was entertained, for which the university received special funds. However, the outbreak of the World War I did not allow for the implementation of this project. The idea was not reconsidered until 1923. The collections of the Museum of the Academy of Fine Arts, in addition to serving an educational purpose, were also supposed to enrich the knowledge of the inhabitants of Kraków about the history of sculpturing from antiquity to modern times. The idea of ​​creating a museum, however, did not get finance from Ministerstwo Wyznań Religijnych i Oświecenia Publicznego [Polish Ministry of Religious Beliefs and Public Enlightenment]. Over the following years, the collections were damaged due to improper storage and, because of the lack of exhibition space, they were dispersed across various faculties of the Academy. In the interwar period, the collection of sculptures numbered only 55 items, some of which were later handed over to Wawel by Professor Adolf Szyszko-Bochusz — head of the Department of Conservation of Architectural Monuments at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków — who, since 1920, was also head of renewal of the Royal Castle at Wawel. The casts donated to Wawel in 1948 were then given to the Faculty of Architecture of the Kraków University of Technology.
After the outbreak of World War II, casts from the collections of the Jagiellonian University were transferred to the edifice of the Academy of Fine Arts. Then, all castings — belonging to both the Academy and the University — were placed in the Tempel Synagogue at Miodowa Street, part of one of Kraków’s districts called Kazimierz. Many of them were then damaged or destroyed. In 1945, the university collection returned to the building of Collegium Novodvorscianum at Św. Anny Street, to then be transferred to Collegium Maius in 1955, where it was restored in 1962–1964 and partly exhibited. Maintenance was carried out once again in recent years. During the World War II, the already modest collection of the Academy’s castings was depleted once more. A total of 32 plaster castings were lost.[10]
Plaster castings of sculptures currently displayed in the corridors of the main building of the Academy are under the care of the Museum of the Academy of Fine Arts, established in 2003, and are awaiting maintenance work. The oldest and most valuable, in addition to the original metal maker’s marks placed at the base with the name of the foundry on them, bear traces of history in the form of dark, worn shellac patina, as well as mechanical damage, sometimes indicative of vandalism. Due to the small number of historical plaster copies, the corridor of the Faculty of Sculpture is also decorated with contemporary castings made by students during workshops.
Although plaster castings of sculptures have lost their original significance in academic teaching, today it is difficult to imagine the corridors of the main building of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków without a row of plaster statues and walls hung with reliefs. These are proof of the Academy’s long tradition and silent witnesses of its history.

Elaborated by Dr Magdalena Szymańska

(Museum of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków),
Licencja Creative Commons

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License..


[1] Janusz A. Ostrowski, Gipsowe odlewy rzeźb antycznych w kolekcjach krakowskich [Plaster casts of ancient sculptures in Kraków's collections], Polish Academy of Sciences, Philological Archive, Wrocław, Warsaw, Kraków 1991, p. 7.
[2] The Organizational Committee operated in the years 1815–1818 and was a body established by the partitioning powers to determine the political system of the Free City of Kraków.
[3] Zbigniew Michalczyk, Wiedeńska Akademie der bildenden Künste a krakowska Szkoła Rysunku i Malarstwa przy Uniwersytecie Jagiellońskim (1818-1833) [The Viennese Akademie der bildenden Künste and Kraków's School of Drawing and Painting at the Jagiellonian University (1818-1833)], Modus. Prace z historii sztuki, [Modus, Works from the field of history of arts”] XIV, 2014, p. 212.
[4] The body of the Administrative Council of the Kingdom of Poland exercising supervision over schools.
[5] The Assembly of professors of the Jagiellonian University.
[6] Materiały do dziejów Akademii Sztuk Pięknych w Krakowie 1816-1895 [Material for the history of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków 1816–1895], Wrocław 1959, pp. 103–106.
[7] A quote from Jan Nepomucen Głowackis letter to the Government Commissioner expressing his opinion on the painting education curriculum by Wojciech Kornel Józef Stattler. Original record [in]: Materiały do dziejów Akademii Sztuk Pięknych w Krakowie 18161895, Wrocław 1959, pp. 111–112.
[8] Materiały do dziejów Akademii Sztuk Pięknych w Krakowie 1816-1895, op. cit., p. 50.
[9] Ibid.
[10] The list of missing casts was prepared by Bogumiła Rzechakowa, who took care of the collections of the Academy of Fine Arts in the 1980s. The list included: Janusz A. Ostrowski, Gipsowe odlewy rzeźb antycznych w kolekcjach krakowskich, Polish Academy of Sciences, Philological Archive; Wrocław, Warsaw, Kraków1991.

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Dragons in medieval art: the sacred

Viewing the dragon as a symbol of evil is rooted in the Bible – even in Psalms, where the power of God is described in the context of defeating dragons (“You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters.” – Psalm 74:13, ESV; “You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.” – Psalm 91:13, ESV). In the Book of Daniel there is a story about the destruction of a serpent, worshiped by the Babylonians – in ancient translations, for example in the Douay-Rheims Bible it was called a dragon (Dn 14:23-27). Finally, the key role in the Apocalypse was played by the dragon: it revealed itself as an evil force, lying in wait for a woman interpreted as the Mother of God (“And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child, he might devour it.” – Rev. 12:3-4, ESV).

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Magdalena Łanuszka

Dragons in medieval art: the sacred

Among the royal tombstones in the Wawel cathedral we have, among others a magnificent monument of Władysław Jagiełło – now it is already known that this tombstone was created during the king’s lifetime, and therefore the ruler himself decided what content was to be included on it. The political program was captured through the figures on the sides of the tomb, holding the coats of arms of various lands, and Jagiełło himself (depicted in portrait fashion) was presented as a Christian king who had defeated evil. This evil is symbolised by the dragon writhing under the feet of the ruler.
Medieval recipients grasped the meaning of such depictions in which a good hero tramples evil, represented as a dragon – most often they were displayed on altars, because some saints were considered dragon slayers.

Biblical clues

Viewing the dragon as a symbol of evil is rooted in the Bible – even in Psalms, where the power of God is described in the context of defeating dragons (“You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters.” – Psalm 74:13, ESV; “You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.” – Psalm 91:13, ESV). In the Book of Daniel there is a story about the destruction of a serpent, worshiped by the Babylonians – in ancient translations, for example in the Douay-Rheims Bible it was called a dragon (Dn 14:23-27). Finally, the key role in the Apocalypse was played by the dragon: it revealed itself as an evil force, lying in wait for a woman interpreted as the Mother of God (“And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child, he might devour it.” – Rev. 12:3-4, ESV).

Miniature from an Anglo-Norman manuscript of the Apocalypse with commentaries, England (London?), ca. 1265–1270, Bodleian Library in Oxford, MS. Douce 180, fl. 56. Wikimedia Commons


This apocalyptic dragon was to be defeated by Michael, probably the most important of the archangels. The traditionally held view is that he was the one who appeared to Abraham, told Sarah that she would give birth to a son, and warned Lot about the destruction of Sodom. It was Michael, who was supposed to have stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac and save Jacob, with whom he wrestled. These and other biblical scenes were therefore shown in icons dedicated to St. Michael (an example of which can be the icon from the church in Szczawnik from 1631, currently at the District Museum in Nowy Sącz). However, most importantly, Michael was portrayed as a commander and warrior: dressed in armour, with his sword raised.

Icon “St. Michael Archangel” from Orthodox church in Szczawnik, 1631, Nowy Sącz District Museum

 

Michael’s key victory was defeating the Dragon mentioned in the Apocalypse – casting down Satan and his angels: “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” (Rev 12:7-9, ESV).

However, Michael was not always shown fighting the dragon – sometimes he stabs his sword through a devil (not a dragon-shaped one) or devils hanging on from the pan of the scales held by the archangel since it is Michael who is to weigh the deeds of souls during the Last Judgment.

Finial of “Triptych of Saint Mary Magdalene” from Moszczenica Niżna near Stary Sącz,
ca. 1480, National Museum in Kraków, public domain


Knight and princess

However, when we see a holy knight fighting a dragon in some work of art, it does not have to be Michael – if he has no wings but mounts a horse, then it is certainly someone else, namely St. George.

The Museum of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków possesses a 19th-century plaster cast of a sculpture of St. George slaying the dragon. The original cast in bronze comes from Prague Castle and today is held in the National Gallery in Prague. It was founded by the Czech King and Roman Emperor Charles IV of Luxembourg, probably from 1373. These types of images of St. George adorned castles and manor houses all over Europe – rulers, brotherhoods of knights or military orders, eagerly adopted this saint as their special patron.

“Saint George slaying the dragon” – a plaster cast of a medieval sculpture from 1373 (the bronze original in the National Gallery in Prague), 19th century, 
Museum of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków


The cult of St. George began to flourish during the Crusades – and it was then that the episode with the dragon entered his legend. Earlier, St. George was simply worshiped as an early Christian martyr – a military tribune from Cappadocia (today central Turkey), martyred as part of the persecution of Christians under Emperor Diocletian, at the turn of the 3rd and 4th century. Meanwhile, during the Crusades St. George’s legend came to include a theme, derived probably from the ancient myth of Perseus who saved Princess Andromeda sacrificed to a monster. The oldest iconographic examples of the cult of St. George as the dragon slayer, come from Cappadocia; it is worth noting that in this case St. Theodore of Amasea, called Tyro, might have served as an intermediary, who – just like George – was supposed to be a warrior martyred in the early 4th century. In Theodore’s legend, the victory over the dragon was already in circulation in the first millennium. The most popular medieval collection of the lives of saints, i.e. the 13th century “Golden Legend” by Jacop da Voragine, popularized this story in the context of St. George: a dragon was said to have lived in Libia, which contaminated the air with its breath. To appease him, the inhabitants of a city gave the beast two sheep every day; and when sheep became scarce, the dragon began to receive mixed sacrifices: of sheep and people (so the creators of “the Game of Thrones” were right in showing that dragons eat cattle first and then switch to devouring children...). One time the king’s daughter drew the lot – but the princess was saved by St. George, who defeated the dragon. According to one version of the legend, he killed it immediately (and seeing this, the inhabitants of the city were converted), and according to another, he imprisoned the dragon and killed him later, when the inhabitants of the city converted to Christianity.

St. George, a field from the wing in the Triptych of the Holy Trinity, 1467, Świętokrzyska Chapel in the Wawel Cathedral. Wikimedia Commons

A woman with a dragon

However, we must not forget that female saints also appeared on altars with dragons as attributes. Sometimes this would take the form of a baby dragon, carried on a shoulder or even held on a leash – as if it were a little dog. Most often this image refers to St. Margaret, Virgin and Martyr.

The Holy Choir of Holy Virgins (Margaret with a dragon on a leash), a field from the wing of the Holy Trinity Triptych, 1467, Świętokrzyska Chapel in the Wawel Cathedral. Wikimedia Commons


Margaret is another early Christian St. who is thought to have been martyred in the early 4th century under Emperor Diocletian. She is said to have come from Antioch; she refused to marry, because she decided to sacrifice her life for Christ, whereby she was tortured and finally beheaded. A popular medieval legend said that during her imprisonment Margaret survived the temptation – the devil appeared in the form of a dragon, but she was not intimidated. The folk version of this story even conveyed information that the dragon swallowed Margaret, but the saint used a cross to rip the beast’s belly open from the inside and escaped. Therefore, in many medieval depictions St. Margaret is not so much trampling the dragon as emerging from it.

The keystone with the representation of St. Margaret, a plaster cast of the sculpture from before 1322 (original on the sacristy vault in the Wawel cathedral), 18981899, National Museum in Kraków.
Digital Cultural Heritage, public domain


Interestingly, some legends identified Margaret with the princess saved by St. George. Apparently, being swallowed by the dragon was destined for her.

Although St. Margaret could not be called the Mother of Dragons, it is worth noting that she was not only pictured with a dragon, but was also... the patron saint of mothers giving birth! Although the choice of a virgin as a patron during labour may not be quite accurate, in this case, the story about being swallowed by a dragon tipped the scales. Because since Margaret managed to get out of the dragon’s belly unscathed, her intercession could prove effective in the dangerous (both for the baby and mother) act of childbirth...

Saint Martha Taming the Tarasque, from Hours of Henry VIII, Jean Poyer, Tours, ok. 1500, The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, MS H.8, fol. 191v. Wkimedia Commons

 

Another saintly woman with a dragon was St. Martha – evangelical sister of Maria, identified with Magdalene, and Lazarus. She was too supposed to have received Christ in her home and fed him – hence this St. became the patron of housewives. Martha (like Mary Magdalene and Lazarus) has been surrounded by special worship in southern France, because according to medieval legends, the siblings were said to have gone there after Christ’s ascension, ended their lives there and their remains were said to have been interred in the local churches.

Of course, in this situation the life of St. Martha also appeared in the “Golden Legend” collection: we learn from it that in the forest by the Rhone, somewhere between Arles and Avignon, there lived a terrible dragon named Tarasque – it dwelled in the river, and when Martha set off to meet it, she found it devouring a man. The saint sprinkled the dragon with holy water, showed it the cross, and the beast immediately turned into a gentle creature. Martha tied the beast with her own belt, and the local folks killed it with spears and stones. Interestingly, in some images, St. Martha “lost” the dragon and appeared only with a bucket and aspergillum as attributes – an example of such a depiction could be a field from the wing of the altar from Korzenna (Master of the Triptych from Wójtowa, ca. 1525, The National Museum in Kraków).

St. Martha and St. Dorothy, quarter from the wing from Korzenna, Master of the Triptych from Wójtowa, ca. 1525, National Museum in Kraków. Photo: Photo Lab NMK, public domain


Dragon tamed

The lives of many saints contained an episode about defeating a dragon – Michael, George and Margaret were the most popular, but this type of beast was also said to have been tamed by, for example, Pope Sylvester, St. Clement Bishop of Metz, St. Romanus, bishop of Rouen or St. Hilarion the Hermit. We have a depiction of the latter on the wing of the polyptych of St. John the Almoner, founded by Mikołaj Lanckoroński from Brzezie before 1504 for the chapel at St. Catherine church in Kazimierz (a district in Kraków). Today, this altar is exhibited in the National Museum in Kraków – its iconography is very interesting, because it contains scenes from legends of saints from the Eastern Church who are not so familiar to us. Hilarion was said to have made the sign of the cross, over the dragon, upon which the beast burst into flames.

A field with a scene from the legend of St. Hilarion, polyptych John the Almoner, before 1504,
National Museum in Kraków. Photo: Photo Lab NMK, public domain


On the second wing of the same reredos, another dragon is shown – but this time, it is not dangerous. This field presents a little-known episode from the legend of St. Simeon Stylites, recorded in the early Christian collection of Lives of the Desert Fathers. Once, a half-blind dragon crawled up to the pillar on which Simeon lived; it turned out that a huge splinter had become lodged in the dragon’s eye. Simeon pulled it out and thereby healed the dragon, which remained under his pillar for two hours, thanking for being rescued, and then returned to his lair without harming anyone.

 

A field with a scene from the legend of St. Simeon Stylites, John the Almoner polyptych, before 1504,
National Museum in Kraków. Photo: Photo Lab NMK, public domain


In addition to the lives of saints, dragons also appeared in the secular culture of the Middle Ages, for example, in knightly romances or in local legends of various cities and towns... But this is material for a completely different story.

Elaborated by Magdalena Łanuszka, PhD
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland.

 

Magdalena Łanuszka, PhD – a graduate of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków with a PhD in the History of Art, a specialist in the Middle Ages. She has cooperated with various institutions: in the field of didactics (giving lectures at, among others, the Jagiellonian University, the Heritage Academy, numerous Universities of the Third Age), research work (including for the University of Glasgow, The Polish Academy of Learning), as well as in popularizing science (e.g. for the Polish National Archives, the National Institute of Museology and Protection of Collections, the National Library, Radio Kraków, and Tygodnik Powszechny). She is the coordinator of the project Art and Heritage in Central Europe at the International Cultural Centre in Kraków as well as the editor-in-chief of the local RIHA Journal. The author of a blog on looking for interesting facts related to art: www.posztukiwania.pl.

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