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The Year of Uccello’s Dragon

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Sport & Culture

The Year of Uccello’s Dragon

How London’s National Gallery is exploring dragon symbolism in European art for Chinese New Year.

Although the Year of the Dragon may have begun late last month, London traditionally begins its three-week long celebration of Chinese New Year the following Sunday, this year on January 29th. The celebrations kicked off with a spectacular parade through the streets of the city around the bustling Chinatown district. Brightly colored floats, dancers and performers with lanterns and, naturally, the ubiquitous lion dancers, all wended their way from Trafalgar Square accompanied by the rhythmic beating of drums.

The infectious air of excitement certainly drew the crowds, and by the time the official ceremony began, eager spectators were occupying every possible vantage point. The waiting masses certainly weren’t disappointed with the spectacle presented to them, which featured around 100 different acts. From the sounds of the National Music Orchestra of Jiin Province to the sights of the Guinness World Record holding Chen Brothers and the highest pole jump in the Lion Dance, there was plenty on offer to please everyone, even VIP guests like Mayor of London Boris Johnson and Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the U.K.

But in contrast to the noisy, kaleidoscopic display in Trafalgar Square itself, in the imposing building that created the backdrop to the event, a rather more quiet and reverential celebration was, and continues to be, in full force. The National Gallery – unusually for an art gallery housing only the finest examples of Western European paintings – has chosen to embrace Chinese New Year and bring the adventure inside.

A few years ago, the curators created a trail around the gallery, available every year, which compares and contrasts the symbolism associated with each of the animals of the Chinese Zodiac in both Eastern and Western cultures. Twelve artworks have been selected featuring a different animal, and whilst some of the creatures may be the obvious focus of the painting, some require a closer inspection of the background to be discovered.

Since we’re now in the Year of the Dragon, it would seem a shame not to take a closer look at the selected painting featuring the mythical beast so integral to both cultures. Paolo Uccello’s “Saint George and the Dragon” is one of a number of works representing the famous Christian story, but dating from around 1470 is much earlier than the examples by Tintoretto, Domenichino and Moreau. The painting shows the knight in shining armor riding a white horse into battle to slay the dragon and save the princess, as the embodiment of all things good and holy. By contrast, the dragon, subdued by George’s lance empowered by a swirling heavenly force, in the West traditionally represents the Devil.

The dragon is depicted as a menacing, snarling beast with vicious claws and teeth dripping with blood. A truly unpleasant sight, the viewer is invited to find comfort in the defeat of evil and the triumph of the Christian saint and his support from God. Indeed, the dragon has been forced into submission and subdued, as referenced by the use of the princess’ belt as a leash.

Conversely, far from the negative connotations of its Western symbolism, the dragon in China is a very positive image. Representing good luck, success and exceptional achievement, the dragon in the past also had links with the Emperor and Imperial Court. The Chinese even describe themselves as “descendants of the dragon.” Today, those born in the Year of the Dragon are seen as very fortunate and blessed, possessing character traits including charisma and eccentricity as well as a zeal for life.

It’s fascinating to examine the different interpretations of such an instantly recognizable symbol. The traits associated with the dragon couldn’t be more different in the East and West, and one’s cultural background entirely determines whether or not it’s seen as something to be feared or revered. While in the West we would aspire to be associated with the Christian knight rather than the dragon, perhaps in China the reverse could be true.

Paolo Uccello’s “Saint George and the Dragon” is on display in Room 54 at the National Gallery in London.