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.
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.
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!