(b. 1518, Venezia, d. 1594, Venezia)

St George and the Dragon

Oil on canvas, 158 x 100 cm
National Gallery, London

St George and the Dragon is a small, even miniature, painting in the context of Tintoretto's work, detailed and highly finished. It was probably commissioned as a private altarpiece, and the conventional arched vertical format had never before, and has rarely since, been used to such dynamic and disturbing effect. The imagery also is unusual. The story of St George of Cappadocia, Roman officer and Christian martyr, was made popular in Western Europe through The Golden Legend, a calendar-book of tales of the lives of the saints compiled in the late thirteenth century. It is there that we find the story of a dragon terrorising the countryside demanding human sacrifice. When the fatal lot fell to Cleodolinda, the daughter of the king, St George, riding by on his charger, turned to help her and vanquished the dragon 'in the name of Christ'. In a departure from tradition, Tintoretto has shown the livid cadaver of a previous victim in the pose of the crucified Christ and included God the Father in the heavens blessing the victory of good over evil. The terrified princess, fleeing uphill from the dragon climbing out of the sea, nearly stumbles out of the foreground. St George has galloped into the painting from our right, the direction of a hidden source of light which picks out the trunks of the trees, the rump of the horse, the armour of the knight and the flesh and garments of Cleodolinda.