Lancing point-first from horseback is the hardest way to hit a dragon. By the Renaissance—with its humanism—St George had graduated to a sword and was taking slashing blows at it. But Bernat Martorell, painting his George in the International Gothic style of the mid-15th century, was still holding to the Medieval ideal—the one in all the best paintings: take the creature at spearpoint.
You can see the reason—keeping the dragon very far away. It was said to have plague. If you like metaphors, you might say it was the plague. St George’s dragon specifically is always curiously small and at the bottom of the painting. This seems to be an allegory of poisonousness—it is not a great beast that rips your head off but a thing low and insidious, that nevertheless is dangerous enough to require a sheep a day and that—when you are out of sheep—will take your virgins. Also: harder to hit.
Regardless of the numerous delusions and myths involved, there is a kind of real success here: for humans, for art.
You and I know more about the world and science than Bernat Martorell and that audience of victims crowding that zigzag fortified city ever will. You might even say we know more about art—we know what perspective is, for example. They thought pelicans had tits and squirted blood from them, and almost all of them were very unfair to people in ways that we now know are barbaric, they were scared and religious and every kind of -ist. But they were capable: they knew about horses, they knew about the weather, they could handle shit-stained terror you will never know, and they survived the fifteenth century—and you didn’t. They didn’t die or crack up. And, importantly: they resulted in you. We need them.
And we can all agree: the fifteenth century was terrible. Even a normal day would kill us all five times over. Nearly everything you’ve ever complained about was for the lack of something they hadn’t even invented yet. But they kept going—and that is real. That is why you can read this now.
They had ideas and one idea was St George. St George the man is unimportant here, what’s important is what idea they wanted out of him.
He’s a saint doing something interesting for once—pictorially and philosophically. He’s not just getting burned alive for being extremely Christian or pointing at some wheat and then the wheat grows, he’s taking an action we can look at in a painting. And he came prepared: he wore armor, he brought his charger. He knows he needs a weapon. God will not protect him—he didn’t protect the sheep.
Take a moment to appreciate this image not as an emanation of an all-encompassing faith but as a series of choices that were not like the previous ones. So much of early Christian legend is about the heroism of being martyred for being Christian—boiled in oil, poked by sticks. The stakes of those tales are: getting to be Christian. This isn’t that. The stakes here are people in a town getting eaten.
We all know what it is like to cower behind our battlements, hoping to not be the next to die.
Not new stakes in the history of human myth but positively pagan by the standards of Medieval philosophy and that’s the point: St George was not theologically important (or even consistent)—he was popular. The people would take a miracle, sure, but what they imagined was a person who would show up and offer practical help. This was more comforting than the hope a hippie would offer waving his hand and hey food, or hey the dragon is nice now. This was a compromise that faith, hope, and charity made with the life of people, as lived: brutality, everywhere, and nobody doing anything about it. They didn’t hope for a miracle, just some guy would do.
People always want a hero, of course, but style tells us how they wanted it, or expected it. St George is not carrying a boar-spear: thick-bladed, stout, with a cross-piece to keep the boar from getting at you as you puncture it. St George isn’t in hunting-gear—he is dressed for war—he is dressed to kill people. The dragon isn’t just an animal, it’s a philosophical terror from the other team—it is all philosophical terrors. Nature, bad behavior, the unknown, whatever.
It’s easy to condescend to medieval people and the typical analysis of this would focus on how we have an oppressive armed class trying to present itself as noble and helpful and pious but there are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides that of evil. One of the nice things about art is that—even at its most propagandistic—it has to pass through the hands of an artist, who has to translate from the desires of the patron to the impact on an audience. People have to want to look at it. And the artist can only speak to what is human: art only ever works on a person if it speaks to real feelings people have while avoiding the easy stuff—the buttons every other artist knows how to push. And every other artist did push them—there are remarkable St Georges by Paolo Uccello, Vittore Carpaccio, Raphael, Rogier van der Weyden, as well as thousands of more obscure and totally unknown artists. Painting a St George that stood out was like trying to do a triple-A FPS. Yes, its all very exciting and violent, Bernat, why should we care about yours?
There are always these Medieval faces—they barely react—any expressions they have seem like they might be accidents. But the very ordinariness of that trope or limitation carries a meaning. Bernat Martorell has very closely observed a great many things and he knows that people have facial expressions—and he has decided that he doesn’t care. He is eminent in his profession, he has brought to the field of painting a great many technical, compositional, and observational innovations, he has looked very closely at the faces of people and animals, closer than most people in his lifetime. And, he has accepted the wisdom of the age: fuck facial expressions. The knight looks positively drugged.
The monster gets to have a facial expression—everyone else: you just do it. This is life: horror, jawbones littering the ground, watching from the parapets of a walled city (the cities needed walls—that was normal) and what you feel about it? Not the important thing, to Bernat Martorell, finest painter of his nation and his age. Women and men and even the innocent sheep are stoic. Goodness is stoic, facial expressions are for villains. Who has emotion in medieval art? The laughing skeletons of the danse macabre, ferocious beasts. Passion, immoderation, indicates a problem. Which, y’know, in a world where the guy with the bigger stick than you is almost always also the person with more rights than you and all doctors suck, is understandable. So: what does Martorell offer in the way of hope and counterforce?
Precision. The opulent precision of every detail, eminently D&Dable:
Three dark and jagged shapes: saint, beast, cave-mouth. Three white shapes: horse, cape and breastplate, the virgin's ermine. Gold on the knight but far more gold on the dragon. Then all the rest: outer works of walled fields with a grape arbor, moat with swans and ducks—two definitely mallards, embankment with a wandering path on the far side, walls 30-40 feet, 4 towers, one balcony, battlements, arrow slits, three alternate entrances, a towered bridge with two openings where the moat splits, king in brown, queen in blue, exquisite jewels for the virgin, three local salamanders, a clever horned sheep which has somehow worked the line so she’s still alive even when the virgin’s supposedly next, armor flared at the side wing and gauntlet, misericorde with gold pommel, horse with gold rosettes at bit and browband (worth at least 450gp), white leather saddle matching the coat of the courser, sheep skull, human skull, jawbone, section of spine, and the dragon, you might now notice, is collaged from batwing, peacock-feather, lizard and crocodile, and all these people in their hats, leaning out to see how it ends.
A comparison: Carpaccio's St George (one of three) is also very precise, and full of ornament and gore, and wonderful, but it doesn't have near the balance and clarity of Martorell. It's almost Games Workshoppy in all its self-annihilating, protobaroque detail:
The soil we've grow in is so much more scientific than they ever were—but they had to wrestle what order and understanding they had from a morass of ignorance—everything incomplete, inaccurate, provincial, poorly-communicated, shipped by donkey, suboptimal, and translated from latin by drunks with scabies—and yet look at Martorell's canal, tunnel, swans swimming, the magnificent painted armor: these were achievements not to be measured against how much better we could do now but against a daily saga of mud and misery and guesswork and repetition we can’t even imagine. There is no real religion here: this painting is a human achievement which celebrates human achievement. Saddlery, metalwork, architecture, orderly and protected fields. A humanism not of human feeling but of human doing.
The painting has so many of the limitations of its context—that horse’s head is just too small—but it’s so much better than Masaccio’s Holy Trinity with its perspectivally accurate barrel vault. Just as the lance is a tactical gamble—minus to hit, plus to initiative—it's an artistic one as well: the whole painting has to build off the tension of that one loooong diagonal. And it does. (This is hard, most contemporary fantasy illustrators don't try it. When Wayne Reynolds gives you a big-action diagonal, he usually gives you four or five other cris-crossing angles to support it.) The painting takes what technology it has and makes a marvel from it, which is all anyone can do. We are ignorant and insufficient, but we are necessary. This is what we have and we do our best. This is how you kill a dragon.