Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: St George killing a female dragon (Image #1)
  • Creator: Herman, Jean, and Paul de Limbourg, painters (Image #2)
  • Description:

    These illuminations are depictions of the popular story in which St. George slays a dragon and saves a threatened princess. However, these particular illuminations distinctly render the dragon as female, which sets them apart from most other illuminations of the tale. While dragons were typically genderless in medieval illuminations, the first illumination, from a fifteenth century French book of hours, prominently features the dragon’s gaping genitalia, unmistakably a vagina and an anus. In the second illumination, from the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duke of Berry, the dragon is being slain to the horror of her children, who cry as St. George prepares to deliver the final blow. In both illuminations, St. George bears his iconic red-on-white cross, signaling righteousness and devotion. Additionally, both illuminations feature the princess as an onlooker to the scene, hands clasped together in prayer, a holy foil to the dragon’s malevolent and sexualized femininity.

    Medieval tales of monsters are traditionally used to offer an allegory to the listener. In bestiaries and other written accounts, the dragon is a figure of evil associated with Satan and the snake in the Garden of Eden. In these illuminations, then, it is not surprising that the dragons are marked as dangerous and wicked. In the first illumination, the nature of the depiction of the dragon’s genitalia indicate her rampant sexual practice. Additionally, she is turned over on her back in a submissive position, perhaps offering herself up to the saint in exchange for her life. St. George is frequently a symbol of chastity, and his rejection of her offer and attack upon the sexualized dragon is meant to offer an allegory of the power that resistance to lust can convey. Interestingly enough, St. George also chooses to spear the dragon through the mouth, a repeated image in depictions of St. George slaying the dragon. Samantha Riches suggests that this might “play on the idea of the mouth as a double of the vagina”.

    In the second illumination, the dragon is clearly the mother of the smaller dragons, as she is positioned protectively in front of the cave-like lair. While motherhood was typically thought to be righteous and part of God's plan, this particular representation of motherhood draws from more insidious roots. In similar fashion to Grendel’s mother in the Old English epic Beowulf, the monstrous mother symbolizes the terrifying ability of female monsters to spawn more hideous creatures. The dragon's children act as witnesses to their mother’s demise and perhaps figure as the next targets of George’s martial prowess. An additional image linked below shows Saint George confronting a submissive, distinctly male dragon, indicating that sexuality in more than one form poses a threat to the saint's virtue.

  • Source: Manuscript Miniatures (Image #1);
    Metropolitan Museum of Art,The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (Image #2)
  • Rights: Public domain (Image #1); Public domain (Image #2)
  • Subject (See Also): Chastity Dragons George, Martyr and Saint Hagiography Sexuality
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1440-1450 (Image #1);
    1405 and 1408 or 1409 (Image #2)
  • Related Work: Digitized version of the Book of Hours including Image #1, Bodleian Library;
    Digitized version of the Belles Heures including Image #2, Metropolitan Museum of Art;
    Male dragon being killed by Saint George, Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.421, fol. 23v;
    Female dragon with teats being killed by Saint George, wooden sculpture group, circa 1500, Gottorf Castle.
  • Current Location: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Auct. D. inf. 2. 11, fol. 44v (Image #1)
    New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection, 1954, 54.1.1a, b, fol. 167r (Image #2)
  • Original Location: France (Image #1); Probably Paris, France (Image #2)
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Parchment; Paint; Ink (Image #1) Vellum; Tempera; Gold; Ink (Image #2)
  • Donor: Layman; Jean de France, Duke of Berry (Image #2)
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 29.3 (Image #1)
    23.8 (Image #2)/20 (Image #1)
    17 (Image #2)/
  • Inscription: On the banner coming from the donor's(?) clasped hands:"S(a)n(cti) Georgi ora pro mi" (Saint George, pray for me)
  • Related Resources: Cullum, Pat. "‘Give Me Chastity’: Masculinity and Attitudes to Chastity and Celibacy in the Middle Ages," Gender & History 25, 3 (2013): 621-636;
    Lindquist, Sherry C. M. and Asa Simon Mittman. Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders. Morgan Library & Museum in association with D. Giles, 2018;
    Riches, Samantha. St George: A Saint for All. Reaktion Books, 2015;
    Riches, Samantha J. E. "St. George as a Male Virgin Martyr." Gender and Holiness: Men, Women, and Saints in Late Medieval Europe. Edited by Samantha J. E. Riches and Sarah Salih. Routledge, 2002. Pages 65 – 85;
    Rodríguez López, Ana. "San Jorge y la dragona entre la Edad Media y la Reforma," Arenal 24, 1 (2017): 257-262;