The Hours of Joanna I of Castile, Joanna the Mad (The London Rothschild Prayerbook)

The Hours of Joanna I of Castile, Joanna the Mad (The London Rothschild Prayerbook) f. 228v, St George

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f. 228v, St George

The border on each folio belongs to the geometric border group featuring a decorative pattern that consists of compartments in different geometrical shapes – in this case, rhombuses on f. 223v and ellipses and circles on f. 224r. The compartments are drawn in different ways using either plain lines or small, ornamental surrounds or imitation worked gold, as in the case of the Hours of Joanna of Castile, in which the golden, worked reticle is half filled with pearls and has enamel rosettes on the intersections. Jewel-incrusted, geometric borders serve a merely decorative purpose, except in the case of cameos whose images act as marginal iconography of the main illustration. This type of border is due to the Master of Vienna of Mary of Burgundy, who was identified, as mentioned earlier, with Joos van Wassenhove, and whose types of border were known to the Master of Berlin of Mary of Burgundy, identified with Sanders Bening.

The illustration abides by the traditional iconography of St George’s fight against the dragon: the saint, garbed in armour and protected with a shield featuring a cross, is mounted on his white horse bedecked with a blanket. Wielding his lance, he lunges at the dragon with its menacing jaws open wide, like an enormous reptile with membranes between its limbs. Behind them are a lamb lying on the grass and the princess, with long, loose hair to symbolise her virginity, kneeling with her hands joined. A golden nimbus, possibly added by mistake, surrounds her head. In the background are a wood and a walled city with a crowd peering out from its towers and battlements to see the battle. The composition is similar to the panel of St George by Rogier van der Weyden (Washington, National Gallery of Art, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund 1966.i.i). One of the first models to illustrate this aspect of the saint’s life is to be found in an illustration in the Hours of the Maréchal of Boucicaut (Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André, ms. 2) which shows the saint in armour, riding a rearing steed striking the dragon down in a rocky landscape in which both the princess at prayer and her parents, atop the city wall, can be seen. The illustration in the Hours of Joanna of Castile is identical to the one in the Rothschild Hours (f. 220v).

St George is usually depicted as a young man in knight’s armour either standing or on horseback. Besides the dragon he is fighting, his attributes include a lance, sometimes an unsheathed sword, a shield with a cross marked on it and a white flag with a red cross or, to use heraldry terminology, a cross gules on ground argent, given to him by an angel. The white horse he rides possibly evokes ancient traditions since Zoroastrians deemed white to be the colour of holy horses. No mention is made of St George fighting the dragon in the Acts of St George. This theme was introduced in the eleventh-century legend. It is an allegory taken literally, and popularized by the Golden Legend, which was converted into a common symbol of the apostles against idolatry. The young princess who was released personifies the Church of Cappadocia that was evangelised and saved from error (the dragon) by St George. The scene is set beneath the walls of a city from which spectators watch the fight whilst the king’s daughter prays, with her hands aloft or joined, for the victory of her defender. A lamb thrown down as food for the dragon is often depicted by her side.

St George is considered to be from Cappadocia due to a confusion with another George, the Arian bishop of Alexandria. His legend was rejected by the council in the 5th century as apocryphal. According to this legend, a terrible dragon had destroyed all the land around the city of Selena in Libya and made its lair in a marshy swamp. Its breath caused pestilence whenever it approached the city so the monster was given two sheep every day to satisfy its hunger but when no sheep were available, human flesh was necessary and lots were cast to determine the victim. On one occasion, the name drawn was that of the king’s little girl. The king offered his entire fortune to buy a substitute but the people had promised that no substitutes would be allowed. The damsel, in a bride’s garb, was therefore taken to the swamp. It so happened that St George, an officer in the Roman legion, was riding by and asked the damsel what she was doing there, but she entreated him to leave her unless he too wished to die. The knight, however, stayed and when the dragon appeared, he made the sign of the cross, attacked the beast and ran it through with his lance. He then asked the damsel for the cord around her waist (a detail that may be in some way be related to the choice of St George as the patron of the Order of the Garter) and tied it around the monster’s neck, and the princess then led it away like a lamb. They went back to the city, where St George ordered the inhabitants to fear not and to all be baptised. He proceeded to decapitate the dragon and everyone in the town was converted. The king wished to give St George half his kingdom but the saint answered that he had to carry on riding and asked the king, in the meantime, to take good care of the churches, to honour the clergy and to have pity on the poor. The earliest reference to this episode in art is to be found in an old Roman tombstone in Conisborough (Yorkshire, England), thought to date from the first half of the 12th century. In this instance, the princess is depicted already in the dragon’s clutches with an abbot standing near blessing the saint about to rescue her. It can be seen that the legend is a Christianised version of the myth of Perseus and Andromeda: with the Perseus of the Greeks being in turn a variation of the Egyptian god Horus portrayed on horseback running the crocodile, the symbol of Seth, through with his lance. The Christians in Syria interpreted the battle against the dragon as symbolising the conversion of Cappadocia. The princess saved from the dragon was subsequently interpreted as the symbol of the Christian Church torn from its followers by emperor Constantine. St George was martyred in 303.

The prayer in the Hours of Joanna of Castile (f. 224r) begs him for help against the armies of visible and invisible enemies.


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