Once upon a time…
Once upon a time there was a horrible dragon who demanded that a city deliver human prey to him, otherwise he would kill its inhabitants with the poison of his fetid breath. The victims were chosen by lot and, when chance chose the king’s daughter, she was taken to the place where the dragon lived. Just before the latter could devour it, George, a knight of Cappadocia, arrived, who drew his sword (or planted his spear, depending on the version) and tamed the monster. Rendered harmless, the beast was brought back to town, held on a leash by the young girl with her belt. Happy ending: good triumphs over evil. Finally, George reassured the inhabitants by declaring that he had succeeded in defeating the dragon in the name of Christ so that they would convert.
A legend destined for success
All this belongs to the medieval marvel as we find it told, among others, in The Golden Legend by Jacques de Voragine. Written between 1261 and 1266, the work relates the lives of a hundred Christian saints and martyrs. The fabulous story of Saint George takes place at the beginning of the 4th century, during the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian (who would later have the knight beheaded) and takes place not far from the city of Trebizond, in present-day Turkey, a city which can be seen on the horizon behind its walls. Uccello knows the story well, as well as its multiple representations, particularly in Byzantine art, all to the glory of the brave knight in armor on his white horse, a symbol of purity. Obviously, the legend is close to his heart: he painted no less than three versions, including this one, the most spectacular.
Symbolism, politics and history
Clad in armor, our knight jumps from the 4th to the 15th century. The times of paganism are already over. The princess, for her part, with the gesture of her clasped hands, is clearly already Christianized. Uccello takes a leap of a millennium in time, no less! What then of the flag attached to his back? A red cross on a white background, it of course represents the cross of Saint George, which would later become the coat of arms of England, of which he would be the patron saint. This flag is the one that was already used, in the 11th and 12th centuries, by the soldiers of the Crusades, as well as, even earlier – from the 8th century – by those of the Reconquista in Spain. Quite a symbol… and a symbol rich in meaning: the victory it displays, red on white, is that of Christianity.
Triumph of the Church
The theme serves to mark the deliverance of the Church oppressed by paganism. The profile of the medal and the whiteness of the princess, just like the arabesque of the dragon which seems to have come out of a shield, are signs which belong to the Gothic aesthetic. Above all, with the female character on one side, the male character on the other and the beast between them, we have before our eyes an eminently Christian rewriting of the earthly paradise with Eve, Adam and the serpent. But a revival where, this time, evil is vanquished, and we can only agree on this point with Georges Didi-Huberman when he maintains, in his essay Saint George and the Dragon (1994), that in Uccello the legend means “the conquest of a place of Christianity over a kingdom” not yet converted. And the cave, then, at the center of this landscape with such a unique perspective? The cave is the primitive Church, the depth from which everything will arise, the future along with humanity, and up to the celestial Jerusalem – the very one that, at the very top of the painting, we see taking place. raise towards the sky.