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100 Best Paintings in London

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Jacopo Tintoretto: St George and the Dragon - Perhaps - 1560–80

London, National Gallery

Very little detail has come down to us concerning Tintoretto’s life. He may have spent some time in Titian’s workshop, but quickly left — it is possible that he was expelled. He was reportedly unpopular with his fellow artists, being ruthless in the tactics he employed to obtain commissions.

It seems that he very rarely left Venice and all his major works are there. Much of his output is in the form of large-scale paintings commissioned as part of decorative schemes for churches, palaces and public institutions in the city. This picture is unusual in its comparatively small size — it was probably commissioned as an altarpiece for a private home. It is also a good example of how Tintoretto moulded his style to suit the commission or client. In contrast to the expansive and open technique employed in much of his work which allowed him to paint with great rapidity (for which he was censured by some contemporary commentators), here he has used a more meticulous approach leading to a much higher finish.

St George was a legendary entity supposedly born in Cappadocia (part of modern Turkey). Alternatively, his existence was a reality and he is not to be confused with the Cappadocian George — a cleric who espoused the Arian heresy. The choice is yours but there is no doubt that his cult grew in the Byzantine lands of the eastern Mediterranean in the sixth century.

Having become an officer in the Roman army, he was martyred in Palestine during the persecutions of Christians during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian in the opening years of the fourth century. The story of his defeat of the dragon seems to have had its origins in the Greek myth of Perseus who rescues Andromeda from a sea monster and it is interesting that in this picture Tintoretto has placed the dragon directly, and somewhat precariously, on the sea shore. Be this as it may, for Christians, George’s combat with the dragon is a simple story of good versus evil and when his cult spread to western Europe as a result of the crusades (his exploits appearing in the very popular Golden Legend) he became the quintessential embodiment of the Christian knight, adopted as the patron saint of Portugal and many European cities as well as England.

Here we see St George astride his white charger at the point of engagement with the awful monster, his whole weight concentrated behind the thrust of his lance. The fleeing princess runs toward us, naturally trying to put as much distance between herself and the dragon as possible, perhaps uncertain as to the eventual outcome of the encounter. Her curiously billowing cloak catches the viewer’s eye and links with George’s attire, both garments painted over a white ground in order to increase their luminosity.

Between them Tintoretto has introduced a novel, and somewhat grizzly, element into the traditional cast of characters — lying on the ground in a pose which echoes the crucified Christ we can see the cadaver of the dragon’s last victim. Directly above St George, enclosed in a mandorla of glorious light which obscures much of the cloudy sky, God the Father looks down on the scene and blesses the actions of the intrepid warrior. A fairytale fortified town overlooks the scene, its walls seemingly useless in the face of the dragon’s fearsome menace. Soon the town and its princess will be free of its threat thanks to the chivalrous saint’s courage.

Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London

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Contemporary Works

1565 Pieter Bruegel the ElderThe Return of the Hunters, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

1573 Paolo VeroneseChrist in the House of Levi, Venice, Galleria dell’ Accademia

1577 El GrecoThe Assumption of the Virgin, Chicago, Art Institute


Further Paintings of Interest

The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes

Jacopo Tintoretto

Lodovico Capponi

Agnolo Bronzino

The Return of the Herd

Pieter Bruegel the Elder