Art Through Time: A Global View
The Natural World Art: Saint George and the Dragon
Before the sixteenth century, landscape elements in European paintings were invariably secondary to figures constituting the primary subject matter.
Most often, these works were religious scenes or narratives for which landscape provided a historical or symbolic backdrop. Gradually, however, the prominence of landscape and the care with which it was rendered increased in some works to the point that it competed with the figural component for the viewer’s attention, and eventually landscape developed into an independent genre. The paintings of German artist Albrecht Altdorfer mark a significant step in this evolution.
The majority of Altdorfer’s 1510 Saint George is given over to the representation of a forest. To the right, two slender tree trunks help to define the space. On the left, another trunk, this one buried in dense foliage, is partially visible. But for a small opening onto a mountainscape in the distance, the image presents the forest as a thick and impenetrable wall. No bigger than a sheet of loose leaf paper, Altdorfer’s tiny work demands—and rewards—close-up examination. As one looks, individual leaves and blades of grass, carefully picked out by the artist’s brush, become apparent. More important, the central figures of Saint George and the dragon emerge in the foreground.
The theme of Saint George battling the dragon has a long history in art, where it has often been understood as a metaphor for the victory of the Christian spirit over the forces of evil. The forest in Altdorfer’s work not only sets the tone for this contest, but also seems to be an integral factor in it. Activated by the curving lines of leafy branches and dappled sunlight, the forest exudes anxious energy. A primeval testing ground for the saint, it is at once a sinister and dangerous world of monsters and an untainted source of purity and strength. Altdorfer, thus, approaches the idea that the forest itself might be a character worthy of representation and capable of expressing meaning in its own right. Within a decade of creating the Saint George, Altdorfer was producing, in paint and print, some of the first “true” landscapes in Northern Europe.
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.”
Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. New York: Vintage, 1996.
Silver, Larry. “Nature and Nature’s God: Landscape and Cosmos of Albrecht Altdorfer.” Art Bulletin 81.2 (June 1999): 194–214.
Silver, Larry. “Primeval Forest: Albrecht Altdorfer and the German Wilderness Landscape.” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 13.1 (1983): 4–43.
Wood, Christopher S. Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.