The dragon in the medieval symbology

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The symbology of the dragon, spread in the Eastern and Classical cultures, faced a great diffusion during the Middle Age preserving the same iconographic representations overtime.  

Some examples are the various friezes that decorate the Romanesque and Gothic churches of all Europe. For instance, sculpted capitals, lunettes of elegant portals or simple tiles contain this fascinating representation. 

 

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The fight between the griffin and the dragon, Basilica di San Fedele in Como.

 

The dragon was represented as a monstrous creature with a snake-like and scaly body, and mighty wings; from the crested head a three-forked tongue departed. Moreover, according to the classical iconography the dragon had a couple of powerful paws with claws. 

 

Symbolic meaning 

In the Middle Age the iconography of the dragon assumed religious characteristics, inseparably linked to the meanings of the Christian exegesis. The symbolic image of this extraordinary animal is directly evoked in the Bible, which contains numerous references: 

Now in that place there was a great dragon, which the Babylonians revered. The king said to Daniel, ‘You cannot deny that this is a living god; so worship him.’ Daniel said, ‘I worship the Lord my God, for he is the living God. But give me permission, O king, and I will kill the dragon without sword or club” [Daniel, 14, 23-25]. 

“In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea” [Isaiah, 27, 1].

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.  She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.”And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.” [Revelation 12, 1-5]. 

 

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Sculpted figures of dragons, Basilica di San Michele Maggiore in Pavia

 

The dragon is the evil, the old serpent

The figure of the dragon is associated to the old serpent‘s one, the tempter that led Adam and Eve to commit the original sin: “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made” [Genesis 3,1].

Then, in the Christian and medieval symbology the dragon assumes the connotations of the biblical adversary, the devil. The cited chapter 12 of the Revelation associates the two images of the dragon and the snake: 

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him” [Revelation 12, 7-9]. 

“And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” [Revelation 12, 17]. 

 

Saint George and the Dragon 

A typical medieval iconography related to the figure of the dragon is the fighting of Saint George. This representation spread embodying the eschatological struggle between good and evil. 

 

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Saint George and the dragon by Paolo Uccello (1460), oil painting on canvas, at the National Gallery of London.

 

The Golden Legend 

The myth of Saint George and the dragon originates from the Golden Legend by Jacopo da Varazze (1298) [1]. 

It tells that, in a city called Silene, in Lybia, there was an enormous dragon that devoured everyone it met. For this reason the people offered it two sheeps by day; however, when livestock was not enough, the dragon started eating young people, chosen randomly. Once, the unfortunate fate fell on the king’s daughter. 

When the girl arrived at the lake where the monster lived, her life seemed to end up. In that moment a brave knight arrived: George mounted a white horse and held on the cross of the Lord. With heroic and sudden rush, he threw himself against the dragon, striking it with his spear. Then the monstrous creature died, and the girl saved her life. 

The dragon and the eternal conflict between the good and the evil

The Golden Legend by Jacopo da Varazze was written during the Crusades. It embodies all the values and ideals of the Christian nobility of that time. During the Middle Age Saint George, a soldier and martyr living during the empire of Diocletian (303), like Christ acts as the one who triumphs in the conflict against the evil/dragon. This latter represented the eschatological and political reality.

The eschatological view refers to the iconography of the fight against the enemy, and it is a prophetic vision of the end times, of the parousia when Christ will come to defeat the darkness. Moreover, it is a political image cause Saint George becomes the emblem of the medieval chivalry ideals and supremacy of Christianity over the other religions. 

Definetely, the fight against the dragon is a representation of the imperishable conflict between the power of the faith and the evil temptation. Hence, it becomes a metaphor of every Christian’s life [2]. 

 

Daniela Campus and Samuele Corrente Naso

(Translation by Daniela Campus)

Notes

[1] Jacopo da Varagine, Leggenda aurea, translated from the Latin by Cecilia Lisi, Firenze, Libreria Editrice Fiorentina, 2006.

[2] Ciccarese, M.P. (edited by) (2007). Animali simbolici. Alle origini del bestiario cristiano, Vol. 2. Bologna: Bologna Edizioni Dehoniane.

 

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