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The icon was originally located in an Orthodox church in Szczawnik, a village situated to the north of Muszyna. Its central part is filled with a whole-figure depiction of St. Michael the Archangel, shown en face, who is holding a sword up in his right hand; in his left hand, he is holding a scabbard. The figure is dressed as an armed warrior, with a short tunic, armour and a  tied above his left shoulder.

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This icon has been in the Nowy Sącz collection since 1950. It arrived at the museum as a result of the action of securing the property formerly belonging to Lemko people. This action was carried out in 1947, by the Provincial Conservator of Monuments in Kraków, on the recommendation of the Ministry of Culture and Art, in connection with the mass deportation of the Lemkos. At that time, a group of historians and conservators toured Lemko villages in the Nowy Sącz area, collecting objects found in attics and lean-tos. The artefacts left behind by the departing inhabitants – which had been exposed to destruction or theft – were deposited in the rented Museum Depot in Muszyna, after having been labelled with cards stating the name of the town.

The icon was originally located in an Orthodox church in Szczawnik, a village situated to the north of Muszyna. Its central part is filled with a whole-figure depiction of St. Michael the Archangel, shown en face, who is holding a sword up in his right hand; in his left hand, he is holding a scabbard. The figure is dressed as an armed warrior, with a short tunic, armour and a  tied above his left shoulder.
On the vertical sides and at the bottom, there is a klejmo – a border with narrative scenes, described by the vestiges of preserved inscriptions. From the top, from left to right in pairs, these are: 1. Christ blesses the Archangel; 2. the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise; 3. preventing Abraham from sacrificing his son; 4. Jacob wrestling; 5. the guard over the three young men in the fiery furnace; 6. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; 7. Habakkuk bringing food for Daniel to the lion's cave; 8. the passage of the Jews across the Red Sea; 9. the entrance to the Promised Land; 10. the archangel stands in the way of Balaam. In the lower left corner of the icon, there is a Cyrillic foundation inscription: “In the year of our Lord, 1631, this painting was commissioned by the servant of God, Marcyj, for his health and the forgiveness of his sins, to the Szczawnica Orthodox church, to the Orthodox church of the holy martyr, Demetrios.”
The date of painting written on the icon allows us to accurately date the object itself, as well as to relate the age of the Orthodox church in Szczawnik to the time before this date. The appearance of the patron’s name is also important for the history of the Orthodox church.
Archangel Michael is considered the vanquisher of Lucifer during the rebellion of angels. For this reason, he is worshipped as a defender in the fight against Satan, the guide of souls along their final journey, and the protector of the Church. The cult of Archangel Michael in Ruthenia has made him a central figure in many icons from this area. He is presented as a warrior and commander of the angelic legions. The pillow sometimes shown under his feet and the golden background accentuate his belonging to heavenly reality and, at the same time, emphasizes the dignity of his imagined character. Archangel Michael is often accompanied by biblical narrative scenes in which he is included.

Elaborated by Maria Marcinowska (Nowy Sącz District Museum), editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums, © all rights reserved

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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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Icon “St. Michael Archangel”

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