Decoding the Human Canvas is our series where we analyze the meaning behind profound pieces of large-scale body art. This time we're basking in the glory of a depiction of Saint George and the Dragon made to look like a stained glass window. Be sure to check out some of our previous installments about Raijin and Fujin, The Fall of the Angels, Leda and the Swan, maritime symbolism, and Christ’s crucifixion.
The image of Saint George and the Dragon, as seen in Maruisz Romanowicz’s massive torso piece, is one of the most iconic Christian images. The legend behind this dramatic scene dates all the way back to the Third Crusade (1189–1192), when tales about soldier saints became extremely popular throughout the Europe and elsewhere. Over the course of the last millennium, countless artists have depicted the famous narrative in a wide variety of mediums, including paintings, sculptures, and, most recently, body art.
The most well known account of Saint George and the Dragon comes from a 13th century collection of hagiographies by Jacobus da Varagine called the Golden Legend. The story goes something like this: there was once a place called Silene on top of a mountain in Libya. Not very far from the city was a lake, and in its waters, lived a vile dragon that plagued the countryside. Sick and starving, the villagers attempted to appease the beast with offerings, but when they ran out of sheep, they resorted to feeding their own children to the dragon.
One fateful day, the king’s own daughter drew the shortest straw and was selected to be sacrificed. As she stood terrified by the shoreline, Saint George happened to come riding by on his horse. She warned him that his life was in danger, begging him to flee, but he remained by her side, swearing to protect her. When the dragon emerged from the lake, Saint George made the Sign of the Cross, spurred his steed toward the beast, and ran it through with his lance — that famous act of bravery that’s appeared so many times in works of art like Romanowicz’s tattoo.
The princess then placed her girdle on the wounded dragon, and together they led it to the center of the city. The peasants were all horrified of the writhing creature that had brought them so much pain and suffering, so Saint George offered to put it out of its misery, ending its reign of terror, but only if the people of Silene agreed to be baptized and devote their lives to God. Over 15,000 people converted to Christianity, and after Saint George executed the dragon, the king built a massive church on the spot where the beast was slain.
It’s no wonder that this tale of chivalry and righteousness has stood the test of time, enduring ever since the Medieval Period. It’s one of the most memorable metaphors for the merits of faith ever invented, and because of the power of its message, artists will doubtlessly continue to depict Saint George triumphing over the evil serpent, in stained glass and body art alike, for thousands of years to come.