Icon of Saint George (the “Black George”), late 14th Century

Icon of Saint George (the “Black George”), late 14th Century


(piano music) Woman: We’re in the
British Museum and we’re looking at the Black George Icon, which is from about 1400-1450. Woman 2: This is a Russian icon. You can see there’s a
bit of Cyrillic writing up there, saying George, who this is. And there are lots of images
of Saint George around. Anytime you see images
of a knight on horseback stabbing a dragon usually
with a big long spear, sometimes he’s saving a
princess, that’s Saint George. But there’s no princess here. Woman: No, it’s more
of a distilled version. I think we’re using to seeing him
though in knight’s metal armor. Woman 2: He doesn’t
look like a knight here. He looks like he’s just kind
of wearing a nice little tunic and a very flowy red
cape and some nice bright red tights. Woman: Yes. There’s nothing
particularly that’s going to protect him. Woman 2: But what we
do see because of that very neatly composed billowy
red cape is his halo. There are little bits of
gold left on the circle around his head and that’s
how we know that he’s not just any old man riding
through the countryside killing a dragon like you do. He’s Saint George. Woman: And the fact that
they’ve put the cape flowing up like that, that’s
definitely a purposeful compositional point that
they want to highlight the halo don’t they? They draw attention to it. That cape drags your
eye up to the halo and then aross to the name. The inscription, George. Woman 2: Because sometimes
we see icons with a whole gold background, but we don’t here because this wasn’t a
scene that took place in heaven, illuminated
by the light of heaven, which is what the gold does. Woman: And it’s earthly. There’s ground. He’s on ground. There’s a horizon there, which you would never normally see. Woman 2: The other thing
that I’m struck by is the big black horse. I mean it’s called The Black George Icon, and usually you think of
George on a white horse. Woman: That’s interesting
because again this is Byzantine icon, and
the white horse is often associated with crusader art. So it’s often with western
ideas of Saint George, and don’t forget that the
crusades came through, they stayed in Constantinople
for a bit and they said, “Oh, we’re going to go and
fight in the holy land.” They were very jealous of
everything Constantinople had and while they were there they were like, “And while we’re here we’re
just going to sack and take everything and take over here.” And they ruled there for 50 years. So if the west associates Saint
George with a white horse, and crusader sort of triumphant attitude, the Byzantine world
obviously doesn’t see that in that same way. It’s very unusual though. There are a few more in existence
but they are very, very rare. Woman 2: Your eye is kind of drawn down. There’s this long, thin diagonal
red line of George’s spear. It doesn’t really look very strong. Woman: No it doesn’t. Woman: It’s like a thin laser. Woman 2: A modern Saint George perhaps killing the dragon with a laser. But there is, that dragon
it kind of looks like a big snake all coiled up down at the bottom. Woman: Yeah, it’s definitely
coiled up in itself. It looks like it’s kind of
knotted around its tail, almost going to eat its
own tail there, struggling. But the moment of death
hasn’t happened yet has it? He’s frozen in that
moment of just about to impale him, just about to succeed, and it’s interesting
because often in western art they are, they’re commenting
about George as the knight in the armor, in the clothes and his physical, his personal ability
to overcome the dragon. In Byzantine art they’re
saying that George is good and that the dragon
is evil and it’s this continual struggle that we’re all having all the time of trying to
overcome falsehood and evil. So, he would never have actually had a dead dragon at his feet
because that would mean oh it’s finished, we’re done. But it’s not. It’s an eternal struggle
for all of humankind. Woman 2: Because he’s of
course put that dragon almost completely buried
in the lower register below that line of the landscape horizon that you see and George and the horse, with the exception of a
couple of feet is totally above in the realm of
the sky, emphasizing … Woman: The upper realm,
register and earthly temporality of the dragon on the bottom. And the horse is extremely
elegant isn’t it? Those lines and the legs
are splayed out in such a beautiful way, and it
really fills the icon. It draws you completely
from left to right. This icon actually has
a very interesting story because it was found
being used as a shutter on a barn in a village in northern Russia. It was actually a different
painting at the time. It had some 18th century painting on top, and they took that off
and then they discovered a 17th century painting underneath and they cleaned it again and they were like, “Whoa look! We’ve got
this 1400 Saint George.” So, we’re really, really
lucky to have this here to marvel over today. The continual struggle that George
is doing and that we’re doing. (piano music)

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