According to legend, in the
second century ВС there lived a dragon in a lake near the city of Silene
in the land of Libya. It often crawled from its wet home "to beneath the
city walls" — or so it was claimed in the Legenda aurea —
translated into English by William Caxton in 1485 as the Golden Legend—
the most frequently read book in the Middle Ages with the exception of
the Bible. There, the beast was said to have poisoned with its breath all
those who came near it. To appease the dragon, a lamb and one human victim
were sacrificed every day. A lot was drawn to determine "which man or
which woman should be offered to the dragon". One day the lot fell to the
king's daughter, Sabra, who bravely accepted her fate for the benefit of
the city. However, just as she was ready to make her way to the lake, her
altruistic intentions were dampened when "Saint George came riding up as
if by chance" and asked her why she was so sad. Suddenly, the dragon
appeared. George valiantly pierced it with his lance — though he did not
kill it. As legend has it, George proceeded to wrap the princess's girdle
round the wounded beast's neck and to lead the dragon triumphantly like a
tame dog into the city, where he slew it with a single blow of his sword.
George was subsequently celebrated as a hero and the dragon was never to
be seen again.
In antiquity the scaly, fire-spitting beast was thought
to possess demonic, primordial powers. It was said that the gods had to
fight and kill the monster before the world could emerge from the animal's
dead body. In Christianity the legendary winged creature came to symbolise
sin and paganism. Described in Revelation as a symbol of the devil and
elsewhere in the Bible as a demon of temptation, the dragon still flits
like a ghost through the pages of the Old and New Testaments. Likened to a
diabolical serpent by the biblical scholar Origen in the third century AD,
the legendary green monster was not met with sympathy in Europe or in the
Near East, but was repeatedly depicted as being "trample [d] under feet"
(Revelation). Yet there were others besides St George who were renowned
dragon-slayers: St Michael, St Margaret, the prophet Daniel of the Old
Testament as well as Siegfried, the legendary hero of the
Nibelungenlied, who bathed in the blood of the vigilant dragon,
presumably to render himself immune from injury.
Indeed, no one seemed to show mercy on the tormented
animal — except
a Florentine painter who staged the present scene like a romantic
fairy-tale with an ironic undertone. Kept on a short lead by the princess,
the fearsome beast is made a pitiful, almost amusing spectacle; with its
curled tail and contorted stance, it looks more like a caricature than a
monster. Here, the unfortunate animal appears to be having a tooth
extracted, which, according to other sources, never occurred.
Despite the widespread feelings of fear and disgust
towards the dragon in Europe and the Near East, in the Far East it was
held to be a beneficent creature that brought good luck.