Colour Our Collections: ‘St George’ by Albrecht Dürer

In this post, Hannah and Steph discuss the creation of our colouring sheet version of Dürer’s ‘St George’ and the popular image of the saint as a dragon slayer. You can download a pdf version of the colouring sheet at the bottom of the page.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), St George, woodcut print, c.1504-1506. Accession number: P.3048. Source: the Whitworth

When we first started to think about which pieces from the Whitworth’s collections we would love to turn into colouring sheets, works by Albrecht Dürer were at the top of our very long list. We knew that the sheer amount of detail in Dürer’s works would make them very challenging to hand trace, so we selected works that seemed to contain fewer details and shadows in comparison to the other Dürer works in the gallery’s collections. We soon learned a very valuable lesson about underestimating a Dürer piece. His works are easily the most difficult pieces we have hand traced so far. They are also the most time-consuming because even the less detailed Dürer pieces still contain plenty of little details, many of which can be hard to see as we’re working.

Despite the amount of time these works take to trace, we think that the effort is worth it and we hope that you’ll enjoy colouring them in. We always knew, realistically, that there was no way that we would be able to capture every single detail in some of the Dürer pieces, especially if we still wanted to give people something to actually colour in. You’ll notice that we have omitted some details completely our colouring sheets.

We also had to create details for some pieces, like our colouring sheet of St George. The end of the dragon’s tail, for instance, was not visible enough in the original for Steph to be able to faithfully trace every detail. After staring into the shadows surrounding the tail for perhaps far too much time, it seemed that a triangular tip to the tail may have been hinted at in the original- so Steph tentatively tried to create something that was in keeping with the rest of the piece.

Detail from the original tracing of Albrecht Dürer’s St George. A triangular structure has been added to the end of the tail, which is obscured by shadows in Dürer’s print.

We soon learned that some Dürer works would become a dragon of sorts for us to slay and the pen is definitely is mightier than the sword here. The plumes of St George’s helmet alone took a good 20 minutes or so for Steph to trace. Tracing was done in blocks, often lasting about 40 minutes. She started with what was most visible; St George and his horse and then some of the smaller details in the background and foreground before moving on to the dragon- which is partly obscured in shadow. The scales on the dragon’s tail were a bit daunting at first glance but once we start tracing a work, we often then start to recognise patterns. Once we start to see a pattern in one part of a piece, it then becomes easier to see how some of the finer details in that piece were formed and how we might proceed with the tracing. It’s also sometimes possible to see if the artist seems to have repeated that pattern to form finer details elsewhere in a work. The process definitely gives us a better appreciation of how an artist created a piece and just how time-consuming it must have been, even for practised hands.

As Steph was tracing, she noticed that the scales on the dragon’s tail in St George largely seem to consist of a pattern formed from elongated lines similar in shape to an inverted stylised y or one of the few kanji characters she knows; the kanji for person 人 (jin, hito). These lines criss-cross each other and change direction. We are, of course, not saying that Dürer has secretly worked Chinese characters into his works- we’re just trying to paint a clearer picture of these patterns.

The multitude of fine lines which form a dark background behind St George and the dragon were omitted from our colouring sheet in order to give people more to colour and preserve what little is left of Steph’s sanity.

The faint outline of a mark just behind St George, in the background of the print, has been traced. This is the outline of a small red mark on the original print contained within the Whitworth’s collections. As the mark is part of the object’s story and is easy to trace, we wanted to include this on our colouring sheet in order to create something that was as faithful to the Whitworth’s St George as possible.

The original tracing of Albrecht Dürer’s St George, completed by Steph from the Visitor Team. The fine lines in the space directly behind St George and the dragon have been left out.

Dürer’s portrayal of St George slaying a dragon is part of a tradition which goes back to the 11th century. The first written depiction of St George as a dragon slayer is thought to lie in an 11th century text from Georgia. The idea St George as a dragon slayer was popularized in Western Europe by Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend; or Lives of the Saints, which dates back to the 1260s, although it is by no means the first depiction of St George as a dragon slayer or as a warrior saint.

In The Golden Legend, St George appears as a knight from Cappadocia who slays a dragon in order to save the daughter of the King of Libya and prevent it from further terrorizing the people there. This particular dragon dwells in or near a pond and kills people with his poisonous breath. The locals feed him with sheep to keep him happy until eventually they run out of sheep and start having to select people to be sacrifices, using a lottery that no one wants to play. Eventually the princess is selected as the next sacrifice and dutifully makes her way toward her doom when St George encounters her and asks to know where she is going. After St George kills the dragon in the name of Christ, the King and his people are, as you may have already guessed, baptized as Christians. Perhaps the small crowned figure hiding in the background of Dürer’s St George is the king from The Golden Legend?

Later on in The Golden Legend, St George is martyred via decapitation during the reign of Diocletian and Maximian after successfully appealing to God to destroy a pagan temple and refusing to renounce his faith. The Golden Legend was translated into English and printed by William Caxton during the 15th century, using the same technology Dürer would take advantage of throughout his career as an artist. Caxton had actually introduced the first printing press to England in 1476, just five years after Dürer was born and 26 years after Johannes Gutenberg invented his printing press.

England is not the only place which has adopted St George its patron saint; Catalonia, Ethiopia, Genoa, Portugal and Venice are just some of the cities, regions and countries which also call St George their patron. Although often associated with soldiers because of his many depictions as a knight, St George has also been appealed to in order to ward off diseases such as plague- further proof he’ll take on enemies with absolutely no regard to their size or murderous disposition whatsoever. To our knowledge, he has yet to be depicted in a mask and sporting hand sanitizer à la Covid-chic but the dragon slaying look continues to be in vogue.

If you’re reading this on the 23rd April; Happy St George’s Day! – Hannah and Steph

You can download a pdf version of our colouring sheet of Albrecht Dürer’s St George below:

Further Reading

Jacobus de Voragine and William Granger Ryan (translator),  The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints (Princeton University Press, 2012).

Jonathan Good, The Cult of St George in Medieval England (Woodbridge, 2009).

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