Raphael’s painting of “St. George and the Dragon” from the collection of the National Gallery of Art is an unforgettable image. It is an heroic and monstrous image contained within a very small sized painting. The figure is astride his horse, they are fighting as one, vanquishing this beast, with a panoramic landscape framing the whole image. It is a classic theme, echoed by many artists.
As in the ‘folk tradition’ in music, one artist will set out a theme, which is later taken up and elaborated upon, by later artists. The ideas and images continue to grow and develop over time. The 15th Century German artist Bernt Notke and the 20th Century American poet Robert Bly are two important examples of this process.
Taking its inspiration from the sculptural group of the same name by the German artist Bernt Notke, “St. George and the Dragon” is an excellent example of the ekphrastic tradition. Robert Bly is literally reading this sculpture from top to bottom: from the boyish expression on the face of this knight down to the horrific vestige of the monster on his death bed.
Over the years, the poet Robert Bly made several appearances at the Butler University Visiting Writers Program here in Indianapolis, including 1989, 1994, 1999 and 2003. I have continued to follow his work over these years, and had it not been for these visits, I would never have heard of, nor read about, this artist and this particular piece of sculpture.
Bernt Notke was an eastern German painter, printmaker and sculptor who lived from 1440 to 1509. During his lifetime he lived and worked in Lassahn and Lübeck, several other areas near the Baltic Sea, and made intermittent visits to Sweden. It was in Stockholm in 1489 that he produced his most important work, “St. George and the Dragon” for the City Church, now known as the Cathedral of St. Nickolas.
Robert Bly has often studied and written about works of visual art. These have included both Bernt Notke’s “St. George and the Dragon” and Albrecht Durer’s etching of “Two Middle Aged Lovers.”1 Bly has not just referred to earlier German artists: many others have included ancient examples of an Egyptian figure of “Isis” and a Mycenean “Ecstatic Mother,”2 both at the Louvre. He also references Pieter Breughel’s painting of a Flemish pageant3 (now only known to us as a woodcut printed by an anonymous artist in 1566), as well as the great series of “Haystacks” painted by Claude Monet. Bly always seems to be attracted to the heroic and the universal and how they both are intertwined with the personal and everyday existence of his subjects.
St. George and the Dragon
A sculpture made by Bernt Notke
in 1489 for Stockholm Cathedral
“The dragon is losing.
He fights on his back
Fiercely, as when a child
Lifts his four feet
To hold off
The insane parent.
His claws grasp
The wooden lance that has
Pierced his thorny
Breast. . . . But too late. . . .
As children, we knew ours
Was a muddy greatness.
We knew our part
Lay with the dragon.
And this girlish knight?
Oh I know him.
I read the New
Testament as I lay
Naked on my bed
As a boy. The knight
Rises up radiant
With his forehead
Eye that sees past
The criminal’s gibbet
To the mindful
Towers of the spirit city.
But I now hate
This solar boy
Whom I have been.
This solar knight
All over the world.
And the dragon? He
Is the great spirit
The alchemists knew of.
He is Joseph, sent down
To the well. Grendel,
What we have forgotten,
Without whom is nothing.”5
And as a footnote to all of this, I remember a painting from several years ago by the contemporary artist, Ellen Fischer. It is an abstracted version of St. George based on that Raphael painting mentioned above from the National Gallery. Many of Fischer’s earlier paintings incorporate the playful placement and movement of a variety of objects on and around the picture plane.
In this particular painting, “St. George and the Dragon,” she includes all of the elements from the original with slightly differing placements. This painting however, stands out as very tightly constructed: horse and rider fused as one, the shadow of the leg and tail of the monster just below the middle of the horse. It gives us an interior intensity complimented with the perfect placement of the various elements.
When I asked her about this, this was her response:
“I made St. George and his horse one and the same! See the princess in the background with the red dress? She is in the distance in my painting, too—iconography is the same in every picture I can think of—I’ve always loved St. George’s heroic, plump white horse, who appears to be as much into the fight as St. George, swinging its hooves at the dragon!”6
1 Bly, Robert; Eating the Honey of Words; Harper Collins Publishers; New York, New York; 1999; pp. 119 & 202-203.
2 Bly, Robert; Sleepers Joining Hands; Harper Collins Publishers; New York, New York; 1991; pp. 35 & 45.
3 Bly, Robert; Iron John; Adddison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.; New York, New York; 1990; pp. 244-245.
4 Bly, Robert; The Night Abraham Called to the Stars; Harper Collins Publishers; New York, New York; 2002; p. 15.
5 Bly, Robert; “St. George and the Dragon” from Eating the Honey of Words; Harper Collins Publishers; New York, New York; 1999; pp. 202-203.
6 Fischer, Ellen; “A statement on St. George and the Dragon;” E-MAIL communication with this author; 14 April 2022, 7:58am.