In 1873, paleontological illustrator Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins added a small sketch to his personal portfolio – a pen-and-ink drawing with the title St. George and the Pterodactyl scrawled across the bottom of the scene.
In this drawing, we see the famous knight engaged in a ferocious battle with a most terrible dragon – the flying dinosaur that was discovered earlier in the century and a specimen that Waterhouse Hawkins was well-familiar with from his own sculpture and museum illustrations. The sketch shows a quirky blending of nineteenth-century Romanticism and medieval iconography and, perhaps, even a bit of satire.
The sketch is challenging, fantastical, somewhat bizarre, and completely unexpected. Indeed, for those anticipating the traditional scene of Saint George slaying a dragon, The Pterodactyl offers a window into the world of natural history in the late 1800s. No stranger to the challenges of reconstructing and imagining animals long-since extinct, Waterhouse Hawkins’s other paleo-credits include the first sculptures of the Terrible Lizards, commissioned for the Crystal Palace between 1852-1854, as well as paleontological illustrations for the Smithsonian, Princeton, and the American Museum of Natural History. A bit tongue-in-cheek, especially when compared to his brilliant portfolio of dinosaur sketches and reconstructions, the Saint George sketch is most assuredly in keeping with other playful dinosaur renderings. (e.g. The original idea for a “Night At the Museum” owes, perhaps, a bit of gratitude toward Waterhouse Hawkins’s playfully sketched invitation to Sir Richard Owen’s famous “dinner in the Iguanodon,” New Year’s Eve, 1853.)
But what are we to make of Waterhouse Hawkins’s Saint George who battles a fierce but extinct animal? What are we to make of the saint in this context, this representation, this telling of the Saint George story?
Traditional iconography of Saint George has several key components – an elaborate cosmological image with a clear narrative structure.
In all of these (admittedly, a small sampling of Saint George paintings), consider rather ubiquitous elements. The divine world at the top of the painting (Heaven – sometimes shown as the hand of God, sometimes in the person of Christ). The starry Firmament. The spiritual warrior George (the knight, the saint). Saint George’s holy crown. His horse. Taming the dragon with a lance. The dragon is most often seen in the lower right of the painting, underneath the horse’s front hooves. Below the dragon, earth (matter?) and the dark cave of the lower world (Hell). In many of the more elaborate Saint George scenes, there will be a princess awaiting rescue. (The princess, or damsel in distress, draws from the Greek mythology of Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the wrath of the sea god, Poseidon.)
Reading these paintings from top to bottom provides a very clear narrative to the Saint George icon. The spiritual knight George “tames” (read, slays) the dragon, establishing order to the lower levels (forces?) of Creation. In Saint George and the Pterodactyl, we see an interesting inverted mirroring of the legend – we see the story upturned and read it reversed.
In Waterhouse Hawkins’s sketch, we see several familiar elements: Saint George, the horse, the “dragon” (e.g. the pterodactyl), light, a crown, earth, and a lower world.
In contrast to other scenes of Saint George, the hero fights the reptilian foe on the left (rather than the right) of the sketch. Proportionally, the pterodactyl is huge – it’s as large as the horse and is a much more serious threat to George with it’s opening jaws and extended left claw, actually daring to do battle. (Some of the earlier dragons seem to cower in the lower corner of the scenery, simply awaiting the sweet release of death…) The Heavens are absent, the Firmament omitted, and the earth (the matter) visually overwhelming the viewer. Saint George’s halo is created by the mouth of a cave of columnar basalt (cited as Fingal’s Cave, Scotland) and the basalt continues underfoot (or, rather, underhoof) trace all the way down to the gargantuan sea octopus in the lower right of the scene. George fights the pterodactyl with a short mace (inverting the underlying geometry of traditional hagiography) while clutching a short dagger and sporting a truly spectacular nineteenth-century handlebar mustache that surely Nietzsche would have envied.
I like to think that Saint George and the Pterodactyl is a late-lingering and playful nod to the American Romantic period – celebrating the wonders of natural history and the explanatory value that traditional tropes (like iconography) hold. Instead of Heaven and the Firmament, we see a cave. Instead of a princess (Andromeda), we see a sea creature (the octopus). Instead of a mythical, cowering creature (the dragon), we see extinct animals (the pterodactyl) that have come to live to claim their own place in a narrative of natural history. Saint George does not engage with his foe at lance’s length – he must be close to nature, however intimating and fraught with danger it is.
The narrative is one of humanity and nature.
Davidson, Jane P. A History of Paleontology Illustration. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.
iconreader. “Saint George and the Dragon in Iconography.” A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons. Accessed January 2, 2014. http://iconreader.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/saint-george-and-the-dragon-in-iconography/.
Temple, Richard. Icons: Divine Beauty. London: Saqi/The Temple Gallery, 2004.
Vikan, Gary. Ethiopian Art: The Walters Art Museum. Third Millenium Pub Ltd, 2006.