Sunday, January 03, 2010


Civilizations can be judged by how their illustrators portray the story of St. George and the Dragon

The basic facts of the eternal triangle between man, woman and dragon are well known. But while the facts don't change, the artist's interpretation changes dramatically through the ages. Contrast these four wonderful pictures of St. George and the dragon: First is a breathtaking painting created circa 1438 by the Catalan master Bernardo Martorell:

 This painting was created in an age of unshakeable faith in right and wrong, a world of absolutes-- the virginal purity of the damsel, the evil of the dragon and the virtue of the knight. You will also note that the picture doesn't contain a whole lot of perspective (both literally and metaphorically):

I ask you: what dragon-- or knight-- could possibly resist such an esculent little tea cake?
A mere 150 years later, Tintoretto painted the same story but from a very different angle:

Now the damsel in distress has become the muscle bound victor sitting heavily astride the poor dragon she clobbered:

No sidesaddle here

350 years later, when religious certainty and absolute principles had subsided a bit, Al Williamson offered yet another perspective in the classic EC Weird Fantasy story,  By George!!


 Here, we learn that the "dragon" is merely a lost and confused alien child who is tricked and slaughtered by the ruthless St. George. We now have to ask ourselves, "who is the real monster?" A few decades later, William Steig offered yet another perspective on the relationship. Here, the damsel is frightened more by the martial clanking of the knight than by the dragon.


 In both form and content, Steig's approach is light yet insightful. Later, Jeff Jones offers us a completely different (and hotter) perspective on the triangle:


 Martorell would not have recognized his damsel. It is fun to play with how these interpretations have changed through the years. Life obviously got harder for St. George as the world became more complex. He evolves from saint to villain to resentful cuckold. The damsel changes from a decorative ornament passively awaiting her rescuer to an active participant, and then ultimately to the wanton master of the situation. Even the dragon fits in roles as a villain, a helpless victim and a hero. 

Look at how much richness we gain as these four different artists use standard characters to triangulate the complexity of love. Has our loyalty shifted away from knights and towards dragons? Do we know more today about what lurks in the hearts of damsels? 

 The difference between an illustrator and a geometry teacher is that the geometry teacher believes there are only three angles in a triangle. As we look ahead on the shiny new year of 2010, it seems rich with potential for those who embrace the complexities of the world and put them together in fresh combinations. 

  "It's a magical world, Hobbes ol' buddy. Let's go exploring."



Steve Morrison said...

Fascinating post--Altdorfer also created a couple of intriguing versions of the story. The first is a woodcut in which the dragon takes on feminine characteristics (breasts) and the maiden is nowhere to be seen. It's almost as though dragon and maiden have merged into a single character. A later Altdorfer painting (and my favorite image on the subject) depicts the dragon as a pitiful toady creature, while the real star (and perhaps villain) of the piece is the wild, monstrous forest threatening to devour both St. George and the dragon (again the maiden is absent).
I've written a little about these images here:

Your blog is consistently incredible and enlightening, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Whatever happened to Jeff Jones?

Matthew Adams said...

Hmm, I think the painting by Bernardo Martorell does contain a whole lot of perspective. Literally it contains a whole ton of different perspectives. And metaphorically, it contains no less perspective than the others.

A really fun post to read David.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Michel Colombe c.1430-1513 ME0000034950.html

kenmeyerjr said...

Wow, what a great transition from one image that seemed light years away from the following one!

Jones is the closest we have to a superstar painter nowadays...

Oh and Jeffrey (now a she) is still around and still painting. She has a facebook account and is posting really often.

StimmeDesHerzens said...

really, quite remarkable!
ok, back to the topic at hand...

StimmeDesHerzens said...

re: As we look ahead on the shiny new year of 2010, it seems rich with potential for those who embrace the complexities of the world and put them together in fresh combinations.
Indeed... lets look for those 1000 angles...
Bravo on your first post of the first year in the new decade!

Arun Kumar said...

Hi Mr. Apatoff, just wanted to give you a heads up about the Mort Drucker tutorial film thats coming out soon. Here's a link:

Can't wait for it!

Rob Howard said...

Arun Kumar, thanks for the link to Schoolism. It's a good idea...basically updating the Famous Artists School for the digital age and they seem to have a solid lineup of artists.

pRiyA said...

Extrordinary post. As interesting to read and think about as the illustrations were to look at.
Glad I found this blog :-)

Kagan M. said...

Another great one!

Anonymous said...

>The difference between an >illustrator and a geometry >teacher is that the geometry >teacher believes there are only >three angles in a triangle. As we >look ahead on the shiny new year >of 2010, it seems rich with >potential for those who embrace >the complexities of the world and >put them together in fresh >combinations.

David, the geometry teachers may still surprise you!

Here is a problem that I recently presented to my students:

"Show that in Moulton space, a triangle may have 3, 4, or 5 euclidean sides"

How's that for creative triangles? With 5 sides you could have two damsels, two dragons, and a knight - or so many other "fresh", or rather "hot" combinations :)

I hope that teaches you not to diss on geometers (you insensitive clod! :))

(since I on the other hand am a sensitive fellow I will mercifuly not go into what a "Moulton space" actually is)


David Apatoff said...

Steve Morrison-- your post on St. George was a real treat; I enjoyed combing through the various images you unearthed and reading about the symbolism of the pictures. I have left you comments (and a question) on your blog. Thanks very much for the link. I'll be back to your blog often.

dougsamu and kenmeyerjr-- Thanks for asking and answering a question that I have had for a while. I knew Jeffrey Catherine Jones is a woman, but I didn't know if she had returned to painting. Jones was responsible for so many marvelous images, it would be a shame if those gifts were not put to use.

Matthew, I suppose you are right; Martorell took a whole lot of perspectives and put them in a Cuisinart. But in abandoning the rules of perspective, I think he lacked "perspective" in the broader sense.

David Apatoff said...

etc. etc.-- your link didn't work well for me, but I did track down the Colombe St. George-- thanks!

Einbildungskraft-- definitely esculent. Check out that little sweetie pie... you don't have to be a dragon, or a knight, or even a male to figure out that she is definitely, whole heartedly and irretrievably esculent.

Happy new year to you and yours!

Arun Kumar-- thanks for the alert. I have been watching the progress on that film with great anticipation. I still haven't figured out whether schoolism is bundling that in with other films as part of a larger curriculum or releasing it separately, but I definitely want to see it.

David Apatoff said...

Rob-- I agree. There is a lot of potential there.

pRiYa-- this blog is very glad to have been found by you. Thanks for writing!

Kagan M-- thanks!

Antonio-- I threw in that line about geometry teachers for your benefit. In fact, I modified it for your benefit too; I originally wrote that a triangle "has" three angles, but then I thought, "that smart ass Antonio is going to write and tell me that a triangle has 6 angles if you count internal and external angles," so I changed the language. I didn't even count on that "Moulton space" business but you can bet I will now look it up.

Anonymous said...

I knew you were picking on me!! :D

Oops, small slip of the tongue, it is actually Moulton *plane*, not space (you can find it in wikipedia, but you won't find the funny triangles there. I think there is a book on google preview that shows a Moulton triangle - the triangle had 3 sides on its own plane, but one or two of the sides may be "broken" in two, so that it has up to 5 sides if viewed as an ordinary euclidean figure). And for my next trick, I'll be presenting my students with a circle that has 4 sides :) (that's on something called a "taxicab geometry").

I guess the best evidence of how creative and crazy geometry can get is that even Lewis Carroll, despite having created Alice's mad hatter of a world, could never reconcile himself with what were, in his time, the first glimpses of the emerging non-Euclidean geometries.


Anonymous said...

Hi David,

Delete the blank space between "..to_" and "ME.." I spaced it because otherwise the blog software was omitting the ".html" part of the link. ME0000034950.html

Anonymous said...

I am glad you liked it, David. It's basso relievo and not typically considered illustration of course, but I think it fits right in. There are more pics in the thumbnails above, btw.

Steve Morrison said...


Thanks so much for visiting my blog. As far as contemporary sources to back up the imagery--I have none. It's more my own subjective response to the works, informed by my 21st century worldview and background. I rather think that such symbolic images come largely from the unconscious of the artist, or perhaps just that of the viewer. But I feel it adds to the experience of the piece nonetheless.
Again, thanks for your original post and your amiable comments on my blog.

Unknown said...

David, I will be interested to see if you feel that every belch and utterance is free speech that must be defended. If so, I expect to see a glowing peaen to Tracey Emin

David Apatoff said...

Mary-- Gee, I didn't even think of this as one of my typical bleeding heart liberal posts. Perhaps I am slipping.

As you might expect, I think Tracey Emin is a nitwit. I have not seen anything by her yet that I find to be artistically interesting or valuable (although you can understand how an artist is likely to attract an audience if her art consists of lists of people she has slept with, written on the walls of a tent). I guess the real question is, when do you stop looking with an open mind? I suspect from the nature of your question that I would keep the gate open a little longer than you would (although Tracey Emin has an almost irrebutable burden of proof against her.)

Mellie said...

Art will always recreate old stories in the image of its times.

To take issue, David, your comment on the damsel being "wanton master of the situation" seems to refer to the Jeff Jones image. What I see there is yet another tedious fantasy image of a woman as a sexual object. Such images are inspired more by pornography rather than any interest in showing women as 'master' (surely 'mistress') of anything other than their ability to titillate men.

Your comment about 'esculent little tea cake' doesn't help, either. Do you ever write about men in that way?

I'm being negative here but in general I enjoy your blog, though usually only as a lurker!

theory_of_me said...

Millie said: "Your comment about 'esculent little tea cake' doesn't help, either. Do you ever write about men in that way?"

He writes much worse things about men, saying they are not very complex and condemning them for choosing art over a stable family life. He's a scoundrel!

Anonymous said...

the relevance of the details of the drawings complements very well. all the pictures are amazing! keep up the good work!

check out this site-->> digital illustration

David Apatoff said...

Mellie--"Your comment about 'esculent little tea cake' doesn't help, either. Do you ever write about men in that way?"

Mellie, don't be too hard on me. I just can't envision a life form in the universe, whether male or female, that would not view such a pink and white lace confection as scrumptious.

We may have more of a genuine difference on that Jones painting (which is not surprising-- I'm not sure how to begin to think about a "tedious male sex fantasy" painted by a transgender woman). I think the woman in the painting is in "control" because she is not the least bit alarmed by the threat from the male (who, in an act of utter impotence, wants to resort to violence) or the dragon (who seems to have been tamed into a pet). It's hard for me to regard her a the victim.