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.