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10 / The Natural World

Saint George and the Dragon
Saint George and the Dragon
Artist / Origin Albrecht Altdorfer (German, 1480–1538)
Region: Europe
Date 1510
Material Oil on parchment attached to a limewood panel
Medium: Painting
Dimensions H: 11 1/16 in. (28.2 cm.), W: 8 7/8 in. (22.5 cm.)
Location Alte Pinakothek, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich, Germany
Credit Courtesy of Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Art Resource, NY

expert perspective

Larry SilverProfessor of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

Saint George and the Dragon

» Albrecht Altdorfer (German, 1480–1538)

expert perspective

Larry Silver Larry Silver Professor of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

Probably the most extreme of Altdorfer’s forest landscapes is his Saint George, a very tiny work, actually painted on paper, from the year 1510. And it’s an image that really shows the forest as the principal subject, but the forest, in a way, defines the saint. In order to have a dragon, in order to have a place that you go and test yourself as a warrior saint, you have to have a wilderness, and for Altdorfer wilderness meant forest. And so this tiny little figure of the saint on a white horse and this wonderful sort of toad-like dragon at the bottom of it start to look like afterthoughts, but, in fact, they are very much integral to the landscape.

Landscape, of course, is not just the world that we live in. If anything, it wouldn’t be much in the way of art if it were the world we live in. So many of the earliest landscape artists were actually taking bits of nature in order to show places that were alternatives to where we normally live. Sometimes the concept of wilderness was defined variously across Europe. An artist like Altdorfer in Germany would define it with very thick forests. For Altdorfer, it was the experience of real forests and real mountains, which were then incorporated into a vision of what wilderness should be, with mythological creatures or saints, that made him such an influential and powerful, really, inventor of landscape painting in Germany. And, indeed, some scholars have talked about him as almost the first artist to invent a new kind of picture besides portraits or religious art, and it’s these very forests that are the hallmark of that invention.

It’s an incredible amount of labor in order to make those kinds of very finely rendered colors of green and brown that make up the forest. The other thing that’s exquisite about Altdorfer is that the pictures are so tiny; you can really hold them in the palm of your hand. So they invite the kind of close-up scrutiny, the intense involvement, almost the immersion in the forest that is characteristic of the people who are depicted in there. It’s hard to imagine that he could have made a picture like this without magnification and the finest of brushes, and the most patient and painstaking of brushwork would have been necessary to make such a picture.” 

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