From classical mythology to a Christian one, another one of Rubens’s great paintings is his 1606-8 work Saint George and the Dragon. Many of us are familiar with this story as well. Saint George, a Christian soldier and member of Emperor Diocletian’s Praetorian Guard, was martyred for his faith. The stories surrounding his life and legacy are numerous. Romance, soldiery, martyrdom—he was the closest thing to a Christian Hercules or Jason. His most famous myth is slaying the dragon on horseback, a testament to his military bravado and faith in God, which emerged in the age of knighthood and crusades in 11th century Europe. It has stuck ever since.
Rubens’s grandiose painting is rich in biblical allusions. The dragon is representative of the serpent from the Garden of Eden and evokes the demonic darkness of Lucifer. The princess, beyond being a cultural contextual manifestation of the early Troubadour romantic heritage of medieval Europe, is also the imagistic manifestation and symbol of the Christian Church (the “Bride of Christ”). The lamb that she clings to is innocence (thus making the association of princess as church more concrete: the bride is clutching the “Lamb of God”). Of course, the great saint himself seated on his brilliant and beautiful white stallion (the color of goodness and purity) strikes at the dragon from on high as if heaven sent into the world to save the earthly bride from being consumed by this terrible monster (God/Christ coming to slay the forces of sin and darkness and death is, therefore, represented symbolically in the form of Saint George). The painting, then, is also a retelling of the typological allegory of Christian theology and the cosmic struggle between good and evil.
What captivates the eyes is the action and passion that the painting contains. We see human and animal emotions rushing across the painting. It fills us, moves our own hearts and soul, and nearly overwhelms us in a moment of sublimity. We also are drawn to the color contrast between the light (princess/Church and Saint George/Christ) and darkness that divide the painting (the division of the two worlds of heaven and hell, city of God and city of man, purity and sin). Our combatants are locked in cosmic battle, but we also know from the painting that good will triumph over evil; light will expel the darkness. Saint George is about to deliver the culling blow against the dragon though we are not privy to that decisive blow just yet. Rubens, therefore, is reminding us that our lives are like that of Saint George in the painting: In the midst of combat, we are locked in this active struggle even if we, as goodness, will triumph in the end (triumph, though, only through the active struggle).
*This was originally part an essay published at Merion West, “The Irresistible Peter Paul Ruben,” 14 April 2022.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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