There Be Dragons in Gallery 203

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Saint George Killing the Dragon, Bernat Martorell, 1434

Saint George Killing the Dragon, Bernat Martorell, 1434

Directly off one of the main thoroughfares at the Art Institute of Chicago, Gallery 203, is the epic painting of Saint George Killing the Dragon (1434-35), by Bernat Martorell, 1400-1452.  The size of the painting equates to the amount of influence this story carries in many cultures; the popular myth of Saint George, the idealization of the knight who kills the dragon and saves the maiden;  a well-known saint in medieval Europe, where the knightly code of conduct emphasized heroism and courtly manners towards women.   He became the patron saint of Catalonia, Portugal, Russia and England.  April 23rd is still celebrated regionally as Saint George’s Day in some areas of Europe.

Martorell’s painting was the central panel of an altarpiece executed for a chapel dedicated to Saint George, patron Saint of Catalonia, located in northeastern Spain.  The image is filled with symbolism and detail bringing the story to life.  Bones litter the foreground, lizards crawl around the crevice where the dragon lives, and crowds line the castle’s battlements in the background.  The painting shows St. George at the climax of his most famous adventure, dressed in armor, mounted on a white horse, while the princess, dressed in a pink gown and fur trimmed cloak, stands witness to his defense.

And the crowd roared

The Princess is Saved

Dragon DetailSaint George in the Moment

The son of a butcher and a native of Sant Celoni, a small town in Catalonia, Martorell is one of the most significant artists of his generation.  In addition to paintings, his workshop produced manuscript illuminations, stained glass windows, flags, and coats of arms.  Certain features of Saint George Killing the Dragon, such as the style of architecture in the fortress, the enclosed gardens, the fruits and cypress trees, suggest a Catalan locale, even though the story was said to take place in the Middle East.

The painting itself is part of a retable, the side panels reside at the Louvre in Paris.  These additional parts complete the episode depicting the saint’s martyrdom, however they remain relatively unknown in the cultural domain.  The scenes consist of the Judgement, the Flagellation, Saint George dragged through the city, and the Beheading.

Saint George Retable Louvre

Saint George Retable, Louvre

The geographical scattering of the pieces of the retable led to different studies, nonetheless, the mystery of the painter was only recently solved with documented evidence to support the provenance.  The enigma was conclusively pinpointed during the Spanish Civil War, when the contract for the retable of Saint Pedre de Pubol, a work by Bernat Martorell, was found in the archives.  This work closely resembles the style of the Chicago Saint George.

Commissioned for the chapel of Saint George, Palau de la Generalitat, Barcelona, Saint George Killing the Dragon was placed on loan at the Art Institute in 1921, and given to the museum in 1933.

Enjoy a the viewing of this masterpiece at TripAdvisor’s Best Museum in the World, and to the left of this painting is a small room with medieval reliquaries; the tooth of Saint John, a carved ivory portable altar, and pieces from the Treasure of Gelph.  The Chicago Art Institute is an ever changing museum where each visit offers new and unique art for the viewer.

Looking forward to sharing my next post on the Augsberg Cabinet with a fantastic video, then Albrecht Durer!



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Raphael’s Hidden Treasure, Revealed

By Mary Jo Gibson

April 15, 2015

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William Gurley, geologist and paleontologist from Danville, Illinois had a secret passion; European drawings.  At its height, Gurley’s collection numbered over 6,000 pieces, which he turned into a stunning donation to the Chicago Art Institute in 1943 to commemorate his late mother, Leonora Hall Gurley. The difficulties in managing this magnitude of works is overwhelming considering the technology of the early 1940s.  It wasn’t until the 1980s that curators finally began work to thoroughly catalog the donations.  Tucked away in this treasure trove archivists found a rare sketch by Raphael, one of only a few works by this Renaissance giant known to exist in the United States.

Raphael hand

Raphael signature

The traditional attribution to Raphael was confirmed by the work’s similarity to sketches made by the master for the frescoes of the Sala di Constantino, the largest room in the papal suites at the Vatican.  There, a powerful hand similar to this sketch, offers an emphatic ceremonial gesture for a portrait of the first pope, Saint Peter.  Peter’s presence in the space strongly reinforced the idea of papal supremacy, acting as a counterweight to the undermining efforts of Martin Luther and the Reformation.  This rare chalk drawing is on a short list of Raphael’s last known drawings, done before his death in 1520 on his 37th birthday.


Saint Peter in the Sala di Costantino

For additional reading, please see this excellent resource from the Chicago Art Institute, which goes into great depth discussing the drawing, comparative art by the master, and the symbolism represented in the finished work connected to the sketch.

Raphael’s masterwork hand is displayed among the Art Institute’s possessions in the Prints and Drawings collection, on the second floor of the main building in galleries 202A-226A; a hidden gem from a massive collection of about 60,000 prints and 11,500 drawings. Only a small sample is ever on display at one time in the museum’s general galleries just off the main staircase. I have some choice pieces to share with my readers this week; Cranach, Carracci and Durer all represent their fine abilities.  The details are incredible, and I look forward to discussing them with you.

The Chicago Art Institute, voted the best museum in the world by Trip Advisor, graciously allowed me press privileges and I owe them a debt of gratitude for that kindness.  Look for more posts showcasing their exquisite collection, and a rare overview of a very special Cabinet.




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