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

søndag 7. september 2014

Perseus and the devil

One of the most iconic medieval depictions of a saint is the scene of Saint George slaying the dragon, perhaps most famously rendered by Paolo Uccello. This is a popular motif, although it goes against the original legend in which the dragon is tamed by the saint and paraded around as a living proof of God's power. The dragonslayer-motif was given a perhaps inevitable chivalric twist in the later Middle Ages, as George became a paragon of knighthood in popular imagination. It was no wonder, therefore, that the garter-knights, established in the 1300s, should take Saint George as their patron, and that he became the patron saint of England in 1351. This iconographic evolution was also facilitated by the iconography of Michael the Archangel, often depicted while fighting the devil in the shape of a dragon. Although Michael has a higher rank in the hierarchy of saints, his angelic nature made him less suited for an equestrian depiction, and this might have helped to bring George into the culture of chivalry.

George is among the early Christian saints whose historicity is doubtful, and seems more to be a myth having grown out of earlier stories, possibly based to some extent on the Persian hero Rostam. In this blogpost, however, I focus on another mythical conflation, namely a depiction of the classical hero Perseus in the manner of St George. The image in question is an illumination from BL MS Harley 4431, an early-fifteenth miscellany of works by Christine de Pizan, including Épître d’Othéa, which includes among other things a selection of moral musings on mythological motifs. One of these motifs is a depiction of Perseus saving Andromeda from a sea-monster. Curiously, however, Andromeda is not present, and the scene is left entirely to the hero and the monster - here rendered as a dragon - and a handful of birds.

Perseus and the dragon
Courtesy of British Library

I am indebted to Robert Miller for introducing me to this image and thus facilitating this blogpost
The episode is well-known and antedates the legend of Saint George, but in this early-fifteenth-century rendition - which in turn antedates Uccello's famous painting - the episode has taken on the chivalric features so typical of the legend of Saint George. Perseus is a knight with a coat of arms, a sword at his side and full armour. The sea-monster has become a land-based dragon presumably intended to represent the devil rather than the brute beasts void of any cosmological purpose found in Greek mythology. That Perseus is on foot rather than on horseback makes no difference in this regard, as George also was depicted on foot from time to time, as seen below in a mid-fifteenth-century stained glass window from Holy Trinity Church, York.

George the knight
From BL MS Royal 2 A XVIII, prayers to the saints, c.1401-15

This chivalric appropriation of Perseus is furthermore not a unique occurrence, but a part of the late medieval and early modern formulation of the hero, and this can perhaps be seen most poignantly in Ludovico Ariosto's use of this myth as the basis for his episode in
Orlando Furioso where Ruggiero astride on the hippogriff saves the beautiful Angelica from an orc. Ruggiero is essentially Perseus as a soon-to-be Christian knight (Ruggiero is raised among Saracens), and in a sense this is the apogee of the chivalrisation of Perseus which is suggested in the illumination from Épître d’Othéa above.

Ruggiero saving Angelica by Gustave Doré
Courtesy of Wikimedia

For more on Saint George, see this blogpost on the high-medieval evolution of his cult, and this blogpost for a nineteenth-century appropriation of his iconography by Hungarian artist Károly Lotz.

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