And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

søndag 25. mai 2014

Slayer without a dragon - Károly Lotz' frescoe of St. Ladislas of Hungary

But she was not the bishop's daughter

Sed illa filia episcopi non fuit
- Chronici Hungarici compositio saeculi XIV, printed in
Scriptores Rerum Hungaricarum tempore ducum regumque stirpis Arpadianae gestarum, ed. by Imre Szentpétery, vol. 1: 369

In a recent blogpost I wrote about Hungary's three medieval king-saints, Stephen, Emeric and Ladislas. In this blogpost I will present a fresco of St. Ladislas, whose composition bears a striking resemblance to the dragon-slayer motif from late medieval Italian Renaissance paintings. The fresco in question was painted by nineteenth-century Hungarian painter Károly Lotz in the Matthias Church in Budapest. (My thanks to art-historian and blogger Nóra Vézpremy for helping me with the ascertainment of its provenance.)

The fresco depicts one of the most famous episodes from the hagiographical material of St. Ladislas. The legend takes as its starting point the Battle of Kerlés in 1068 which was waged against the pagan Cumans, and tells of a daring and chivalrous feat of King Ladislas. Although the story is set in the mid-eleventh century, the legend itself is significantly more recent. According to Gabor Klaniczay, the legend is a "thirteenth-century interpolation of the twelfth-century original" (Klaniczay 2002: 190), brought to us from a fourteenth-century source. Naturally, this story conveys the chivalric ideal of the 1200s rather than eleventh-century preoccupations.

The story goes that Ladislas spotted a Cuman warrior riding away with a beautiful Hungarian woman, whom he thought to be the daughter of the bishop of Várad. Despite being wounded in the battle, the chivalrous and saintly king set after the pagan and almost managed to get close enough to stab the fleeing pagan with his lance. The horse could go no faster, nor did the other horse slow down, and Ladislas then called out to the Hungarian lady to grab hold of the Cuman and to throw herself to the ground. When Ladislas made ready to lunge his lance into the unhorsed enemy, the girl pleaded for his life, and the chronicler comments that this was surely sign of some illicit love between the two. The Cuman is nonetheless killed following a fight with Ladislas, and the girl turns out not to be the bishop's daughter.

St. Ladislas and the Cuman Warrior
Károly Lotz, 19th century

The episode was very popular in the cult of St. Ladislas, and it has been the subject of several renditions in both text and image. One of the most important medieval examples is perhaps the fourteenth-century Angevin Legendary.

In terms of time, Károly Lotz's fresco is far removed from the origins of this legend, but as a Hungarian he must have been very familiar with the story, and he also had a long tradition of art to draw from in his depiction. As mentioned above, the fresco is remarkably similar to certain depictions of the legend of St. George as it was portrayed in late-medieval art. The poise of the knight in the saddle is the most obvious feature, while the defeat of the Cuman being positioned in the forefront of the scene makes for interesting parallels with the vanquished dragon from the legend of St. George.

There are, of course, also differences. In most of the depictions of St. George, the lady is situated comfortably a little way away from the main action, whereas Lotz has placed her in the forefront along with the Cuman warrior. This placement also draws the woman into the action itself, making her not only more visibly positioned, but also a vital part of the conflict itself.

I can not claim that Károly Lotz drew on this treasure trove of imagery in his composition of the St. Ladislas fresco, and even if he did, I can not with any certainty suggest from which images he drew his inspiration. However, to highlight the similarities between Lotz's fresco, I will present some late-medieval depictions of the famous scene of George fighting the dragon, and the readers can decide whether they agree or disagree. All pictures are taken from Wikimedia.

St. George (Sant Jordi) fighting the dragon
Bertan Martorell, 1434-35

Rogier van der Weyden, before 1464

Altar wing from a church in Praha, c.1470

Raphael, 1505-06

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