Vegder's Blog

April 24, 2016

Not Quite the Zodiac – Part Seven, sub 4: Christians vs. the Dragons

Filed under: Art,Christian mythology,European art — vegder @ 12:35 pm
Tags: ,

This is the routine:
first a few choice images
to be followed by revelatory passages
meant to enhance and entrance. 

15th century illumination from the Mirror of History, volume III by Vincent de Beauvais (ca. 1190 to ca. 1264).
Musée Condé, Chantilly

Please come back often – at least in the early days of this ordeal
and I will guarantee you that you won’t be disappointed – or, double your money back –
no wait!… triple. How do you like them crackers, eh?

Have you seen any dragons lately? Huh? Have you? In the zoos or wildlife preserves or in the wild? Bet not. You know why? It is because the Christians killed them off. Of course, you might think that this is just a theory of mine, but it isn’t. Darwin is a theory. Evolution is a theory. This is a fact. The Christians drove them to extinction and the ones who did it best were sainted for it. You’ll see. All of the pertinent information will be provided below. Believe what you want to believe (now), but there is only one conclusion you can come to in the end – the dragons are no more and guess what, the Christians did it.

Oh, but you’re saying to yourself (and anyone else near you who will listen): “There never were any real dragons. It’s all myth. It all bunkum. It’s a lie.” But I tell you, and listen carefully, that dragons really did exist and just like the dodo they were driven to extinction by mankind. In fact, the dodo and the dragon have/had an awful lot in common. The only real difference is that dragons could fly, but chose to stand their ground, while those poor hapless birds never saw it coming and had no easy means of escape. Also, dodos couldn’t breathe fire and didn’t consume maidens, virgin or otherwise, and didn’t leave behind them a trail of a hell of a lot of questing knights. And as we all know, humans have to be right all of the time, but dragons only have to be right once to do any real damage. Trust me on this one.

In case you are thinking of taking me literally, remember what Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 to 8 B.C.) said: Dulce est desipere in loco. “Sometimes it’s fun to play the fool!”

Just as we used to have “Most Wanted” pictures in our post offices, maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing to show people what the typical dragon might look like in case they happen to encounter one 

The image below comes from the Hortus Sanitatis, originally published by Jacob Meydenbach in Mainz in 1485. Wikipedia quotes Sir David Attenborough at the University of Cambridge site that states: “This is the first natural history encyclopaedia.” What about Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus: born 23/24 to 79 A.D.? Doesn’t he count? When I was little we owned a copy of The World Book Encyclopedia. When I was older we got a copy of The Encyclopedia Britannica. I had been given a choice of Britannicas or a set of golf clubs. Guess which one I went for, but what do I know?

Side note: Pliny was done in by the explosion of Mt. Vesuvius on August 24, 79 A.D. Same day Pompeii and Herculaneum ate it.

MNHN_1497_dragon_woodcut_anonymous_7          U._of_Cambridge_Hortus_Sanitatis_dragon_7
Anonymous woodcut from 1497 from the muséum national d’Histoire naturelle on the left
and on the right is the one from the University of Cambridge, dated 1491

Illustration from the 1651 edition of the
Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae thesaurus seu Plantarum animalium mineralium Mexicanorum historia
in the collection of the muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. The author was Francisco Hernández (1514-1587).

Page from the Liber Floridus by Lambert de St. Omer
15th century Ghent
Musée Condé, Chantilly

St. Margaret of Antioch

Schwabian drawing from ca. 1495 once attributed to Martin Schongauer (ca. 1440/53 to 1491).
British Museum

From the Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne by Jean Bourdichon (ca. 1457-1521)
Bibliothèque nationale de France  – ca. 1507-1508

Old Testament Daniel has a friend in Jesus – Don’t go running to your Bibles. The story of Daniel and the dragon of Bel won’t be there, as best I understand. Turns out the passages from The Book of Daniel only exist in the ancient all Greek version and that these passages were eliminated later. I can only assume that they were viewed as apocryphal. Or, deuterocanonical as the Catholics would say. [A word I had never heard before today, April 26th.]

Glass bottom of a drinking vessel showing Daniel accompanied by Jesus. It dates from the 3rd to 5th century.
Daniel is feeding the poisoned biscuit to the dragon of Bel.
British Museum

The Germans have a word for it: zwischengoldglas – The Germans have a word for almost everything. So do English language speakers, but for some reason I sometimes just love the German word combinations better. Who doesn’t? In this case, zwischen means ‘between’. You can guess what gold und glas mean – and you will be right.

Here is a general idea of the process in the most simplistic terms: 1) a glass base is made; 2) when cooled an adhesive is coated onto the surface of the glass that will receive the gold leaf; 3) the gold sheet of gold leaf is applied to the gummed-up surface; 4) a craftsman/artist cuts away the gold he doesn’t need to make the design. This is a reductive process; 5) another piece of glass is made of the same size to fit over the base which carries the design on top in gold leaf; 6) the freshly made new, piping hot piece of glass is placed on top of the old cooled piece with the design, fusing them together and both are than placed in an annealing oven. The end result is basically what you see in the Daniel/Christ/dragon image shown above.

I find all of this effing amazing. My goodness look at the age of this piece. It may be as much as 1800 years old. Amazing.

Musée Condé, Chantilly – 15th century – color on parchment

Here is the true story of Chapter 14 of the Book of Daniel which ain’t in the Bible 

First part – lines 1 thru 22

Daniel was friends with the new king who worshipped the god Bel.
Every day the king had twelve bushels of the finest flour, forty sheep and six measures of wine placed before the statue of that god.
The king wanted to know why Daniel wouldn’t worship Bel and Daniel said he would not worship a statue made by man.
The king argued that it was the god that was consuming all of the victuals placed before it every day. Daniel was skeptical.
The king demanded that his priest prove Daniel wrong. The priests suggested that all of them, including Daniel and the king,
go to the temple, place the food and drink before the god, go out locking the doors of the temple behind them.
Then in the morning if the food is still there the priests felt they should be put to death. If the food was gone then Daniel should die.
The priests were self-confident because they knew that they had a secret entrance into the inner sanctum
and had been going in nightly and removing the food themselves.
What they didn’t know was that Daniel had ordered his servants to scatter ashes on the floor before the doors were locked.
Later that night the priests and their wives and children went in and ate the food and drank the wine.
In the morning the king and Daniel went to the sealed doors and agreed that the seal was unbroken.
The doors were opened and lo and behold the food was gone, but Daniel told the king to look at the floor
where he saw the footprints of the priests and their families. The king had them put to death.

Second part – line 23 thru… 

There was a great dragon which the Babylonians worshipped too.
It was eating the food placed before the statue. Daniel asked the king if he could have permission to kill the dragon. The king said “Okay.”
Whereupon, Daniel took some pitch, some fat and some hair and boiled them up together, rolled the mixture into balls
and fed them to the dragon; the dragon swallowed them and burst. Daniel said, ‘Now look at the sort of thing you worship!’ 
Upon hearing this the people were furious and screamed “The king has turned Jew.
The people were out for blood and demanded that Daniel be put to death or else.
The king relented and Daniel was arrested and thrown into the lion den.
The rest is history, as you know.

Other Daniel-in-captivity stuff – Here is an interesting tidbit: the name ‘Daniel’ in the ancient Hebrew meant “God is my judge”. In ca. 605 B.C., when Daniel was about 14 years old, he was carried off to Babylon and held in captivity. His and three of his peers were entrusted to the king’s master of his eunuchs for their education. Daniel was given a new name, Baltassar, i.e., ‘under the protection of the god Bel’. At the court of the king, in time, Daniel came to be the greatest interpreter of dreams and omens and was richly rewarded for his services. (Joseph served in a similar role for the pharaoh in Egypt.) Then after a change of regimes Daniel went into retirement, but was brought back when the ruler, Belshazzar was having a feast and miraculously these words appeared on the wall: mene, mene, tekel, upharsin (מְנֵ֥א מְנֵ֖א תְּקֵ֥ל וּפַרְסִֽין). Daniel was brought out of retirement and told the king what these words meant. Below is a small reminder of the drama of that moment a la Rembrandt’s version.

National Gallery, London

But Daniel’s travails were hardly over. Jealousy among the kings other lieutenants caused Daniel to be thrown in the lion’s den. By now Daniel was in his 80s, but take a look at Rubens wonderful painting of this scene. Does Daniel look like any other octogenarian you have ever known. Artistic license or credible biblical effects? I guess 80 was the old 30. Doesn’t matter. It is still a great painting. (Who needs dragons?)

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

And what does the King James Version of the Bible say about that passage in Deuteronomy? 

32 For their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah: their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter:
33 Their wine is the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom of asps.
34 Is not this laid up in store with me, and sealed up among my treasures?

The Archangel Michael doing battle with dragons, demons and sundry other devilish creatures 


Crozier of St. Michael slaying the dragon – 1st half of the 13th century – Limoges champlevé enamel
Musée de Cluny

St. George and the dragon 

Rogier van der Weyden – St. George and the dragon – ca. 1432-35
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
This is one of the greatest paintings in America and it is only 5 5/8″ tall. Imagine that!

The museums ‘overview’ of this painting, this gem, states:

“The special mixture of reality, fantasy, and virtuosity that is particular to early Netherlandish painting is nowhere more apparent than in this exquisite panel. In an episode from the popular legend, Saint George in black Gothic armor pins the dragon to the ground with his lance; at the left kneels the fashionably attired Princess Cleodolinda who was to have been sacrificed to the dragon. George was a Roman soldier living in third-century Cappadocia, but the setting has here been transformed from ancient Asia Minor to the contemporary Belgian countryside.

Passing through a series of overlapping hills, we come upon a walled city surrounded by water and dominated by a castle perched atop a fantastic mountain. This scene is almost certainly imaginary and yet is rendered with the greatest clarity and realism. The attention to specific detail has led to the suggestion that the artist made use of a magnifying glass.

The artist’s interest in the depiction of light — reflecting on George’s armor and the dragon’s scales — and atmospheric effects shows the influence of Jan van Eyck. The painting is also stylistically related to manuscript illumination that would suggest this is an early work. The panel may originally have been part of a larger ensemble, perhaps a diptych, and was most likely used for private devotion.”

Master I.A.M. of Zwolle (1440-1504)
The Louvre

There is another copy of this print in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Their files describe this print’s technique beautifully:

” one of the artist’s most graceful compositions, again splendidly showcases his characteristically tonal approach. Here, contrasting tonalities also serve an additional, narrative function, helping to characterize the protagonists in the story. The artist plainly defines the dichotomy of good and evil through light and dark, brightly lighting the hero, Saint George, from the foreground while the ravenous dragon, shrouded in darkness, casts deep shadows upon him from above. Tonal contrasts also help balance the composition, with the horse’s illuminated hindquarters on the bottom right echoing the black dragon in the opposite corner. Particularly beautiful passages include the horse’s dark underbelly and rippling front legs, and Saint George’s head ornament, which mirrors the dragon’s whipping tail, below.”

Anonymous 15th century Rhenish-Westphalian painting on wooden panel
The Louvre


I’m gonna saddle up and kill me some vermin. How’dya like some dragon meat for supper?

Possible Bohemian polychromed saddle from ca. 1400-25 made of carved bone or ivory, staghorn, limewood, rawhide and birchbark.
Metropolitan Museum of Art

The curatorial files say:

“This is one of about twenty known Medieval saddles decorated with bone plaques. The saddles vary somewhat in decoration, but certain motifs are common throughout. For instance, Saint George, standing over the defeated dragon, appears with elegant couples on most of the saddles. Used in parade, they were probably more ceremonial than utilitarian.


The bone plaques used to create the saddle, probably from the pelvic bones of large animals such as cows, are attached to the core with bone pins and glue. The underside is lined with hide and birch bark.”


Damsels in distress – they are all pretty much interchangeable, don’t you think? – I can’t think of hapless maidens without thinking of Fay Wray. Dragons or giant apes… what difference does it make to the victim? The basic elements are almost always the same: a beautiful, sexy female of our species in need of saving, a monster and a superhuman hero/savior. How does this differ from that formula? It might as well be St. George vs King Kong – that pathetic and poorly understood hormonally challenged, over-sized ape.


Now that I think of it, there is a difference: King Kong wasn’t real, but dragons were.

Who in the hell was Saint Hélain? I’ll get back to you later when I find out.

Next day: I love the Internet. When I set my mind to it, to problem solving, I always seem to find something I am looking forward. It isn’t always easy, but generally I can find something. That is why I am so pleased that after getting up at 5:10 A.M., drinking my first cup of re-heated coffee, made the night before, looking bleary-eyed at the news, doing the Washington Post crossword puzzle online, taking my three morning pills, I am ready to face most tasks. So that is what I did and here is what I found: St. Hélain was Irish, 5th century, went to the Champagne region of France, proselytized, was martyred and his saint’s day is October 7. It is Helanus in the Latin. I got this from Dictionnaire hagiographique: ou, Vies des saints et des bienheureux, honorés en tout temps et en tous lieux depuis la naissance du christianisme jusqu̓à nos jours… The 1850 edition, in French, of course. God, I love the Internet. Have yet to find out anything about the dragon.

Saint Hélain riding on a dragon from the Mirror of History by Vincent de Beauvais.
This illustration dates from ca. 1333-1350. Artist unknown.
Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal

Sir Perceval, a knight of the Round Table, a very Christian fellow

Sir Perceval fighting with a dragon by Michel Gonnot from Lancelot du Lac from 1470
Bibliothèque nationale de France

Seven heads are better than one: the dragon of the Apocalypse

The Lady and the dragon by the Sarum Master – 13th century – Salisbury, England
Bibliothèque nationale de France

“The ‘Sarum Master’ is the name given to the elusive illuminator (or more likely master of a workshop) who was in operation at Salisbury in the years between c. 1245 and 1255/60, and who produced a series of prestigious illuminated books for high-ranking patrons connected to the see and/or the city…” The Paris Apocalypse (ca. 1250-55) – detail shown above – was produced toward the end of this master’s creative life. (Quoted from: Thirteenth-century Wall Painting of Salisbury Cathedral: Art, Liturgy, and Reform by Matthew M. Reeve.)


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