A fairy tale in sculpture
A massive, over-life-sized sculptural group of St. George and the Dragon in the City Church of St. Nicholas, Stockholm reads like a fairy tale. St. George, the figure on horseback, defeats an attacking dragon to save a princess. The artist selected the most dramatic moment of the fight, the climax when St. George raises his sword to unleash the fatal strike to the dragon.
This tale hails from St. George’s hagiography (writing of the lives of saints), compiled in the medieval text known as the Golden Legend (Legenda aurea). George stumbles upon a princess in a town called Silene. Her father, the King, must sacrifice his daughter to placate the dragon that lives outside the city walls. As an officer in the Roman army, George pledges to save the princess “in the name of Christ” if the entire town agrees to be baptized. George victoriously defeats the dragon, and in turn, rescues not just the distressed princess but also the entire town through Christian conversion.
The sculpture’s artist (whose identity is debated among art historians) visually translates this triumphant Christian narrative into a three-dimensional devotional structure of huge proportions: the figure of George is seven feet six inches high (2.28m) and the entire group is nearly 11 feet long (3.5m)— roughly the size of an average male African elephant.
In the current arrangement, the kneeling princess is supported on a separate base from the one that holds St. George and the Dragon. She’s placed on top of a citadel that symbolically represents the town of Silene.
On the sides of the reconstructed bases, there are miniature carved reliefs that further translate a complex story into three-dimensional reality. The main base features eight carved reliefs showing scenes from the life of the patron saint. One scene represents a violent tale of St. George’s torture. The saint lies nearly naked on a plank as his tormentors brutally cut his body and rub salt into his wounds. Despite this infliction of horrific pain, St. George remains unfazed and deeply committed to his faith.
The St. George and the Dragon sculptural group was installed in the City Church of St. Nicholas (in Swedish, Storkyrkan) in Stockholm. Sources record the arrival of “ye great George in Stockholm’s town church” in 1489. The sculpture is currently located at the northern aisle of the chancel in the same church today, but its original placement and reconstruction in the church remain speculative. Nonetheless, it still stands as a rare example of freestanding sculpture in Scandinavia and as the largest equestrian monument from late-medieval northern Europe.
Piety and propaganda
The sculptural group performed many functions. It was a tomb, a relic, and a national monument. Sten Sture, the governor (or regent) of Sweden, commissioned the sculpture and was briefly buried inside the base of the monument (he was later moved to the abbey church of Mariefred). In donating a monument for his burial inside the city’s greatest church, Sten participated in the late-medieval culture of piety to ensure his eternal salvation. His coats of arms—the water-lily leaf—are located on the front side of the base under St. George and on both sides of the harness of the horse, alternating with the cross of St. George.
At the base of the interlocking St. George and the dragon, macabre carvings of severed human and animal extremities further heighten the drama and intensity of the narrative. Such gruesome imagery—magnified on a massive tomb monument—certainly reinforces the intended burial function of the monument. It also departs from the recumbent tomb effigies that were prevalent throughout northern Europe.
Sten had political motivations for commissioning this work as well. His political power was solidified after his victory against Danish King Christian I’s army at the Battle of Brunkeberg in 1471. Legend says that Sten and his army prayed to St. George before the battle. In the Middle Ages, the knightly St. George served as a warrior saint to protect against illness or danger.
The figure of St. George also contained bundles of relics inside his chest, located behind his breastplate in four compartments. Originally the compartments were covered in rock crystal, but now four wooden panels protect the relic containers (so the relics are no longer visible today). Some evidence suggests that Sten personally requested relics for the cult of St. George from the Vatican in 1492.
The sculptural group further worked as a visual reminder of Sten’s power, which was under threat during the last decades of the fifteenth century. This notably overlaps with the time St. George was likely installed. The specific choice of St. George and the Dragon functioned as a potent subject to commemorate Swedish victory over the King of Denmark and Norway: Sten’s victory at Brunkeberg parallels the narrative of George fighting the dragon, where Stockholm under Danish threat stood as an allegory of Silene besieged by the dragon.
The carved figure of St. George, removable from the saddle, was processed through the streets of Stockholm on the anniversary of the battle on 10 October to commemorate the Swedish victory. Moreover, St. George wears the Swedish national colors, blue and yellow, branding the work as an early national monument to Sweden before Swedish independence in 1523.
The bulk of the St. George sculptural group is made from carved and polychromed oak. In northern Europe during the late-medieval and early modern periods, oak was the most common material for carved sculpture. In the workshop, artisans prepared the oak for painting (also called polychromy) and gilding
Still, a distinct aspect of this sculpture is the incorporation of multiple materials found in real life to create a striking life-like effect. Looking closely, the dragon’s horns and spine are not carved from oak, but real elk antlers. St. George’s belt is painted rope. Wielded metal forms the saddle, reins, and bridle. The straps between the plates of St. George’s armor and stirrup are actual leather. Gems and stones decorate the gilded military honors. The veins on the straining horse were crafted from pieces of string beneath the gesso and polychromy.
More fragile original elements have since been lost. Early conservation reports note that animal hide was inserted inside the horse’s ear and the horse’s mane and tail were made from real hair. The skull underneath the dragon also originally wore a wig from human hair, and traces of human hair were found on the bust of the dead man. The use of multimedia materials ultimately testify to the ability of sculpture to reproduce a suspenseful battle with remarkable illusionism in a three-dimensional setting.
Such effects that play with levels of reality are unparalleled in a sculpture this size in the Baltic Sea region. And moreover, since so few monumental sculptures from northern Europe have survived after the Reformation, the St. George group truly gives us insight into the material splendor of pre-modern sculpture.
An art history mystery
In spite of the work’s compelling subject matter, function as a tomb-relic-monument, and striking employment of multiple materials, the driving art historical interest has centered on identifying the artist. Who made this work of art? The short answer: we don’t know, but specialists have spent over a century debating it.
Simply put, there’s no written documentation connecting this work to a specific artist or workshop. The long-standing attribution is credited to Bernt Notke, a master from Lübeck, Germany. Notke maintained one of the largest workshops in the Baltic region that had the resources to make such a monumental work; his workshop also made large-scale carved and painted altarpieces for churches in Denmark and Estonia. Notke’s workshop was known to use found materials, like rope, metal, and string in his works of art, so the Stockholm sculpture’s clever integration of multi-materials seems to favor his attribution. Archival documents further show his residency in Stockholm around the time that the St. George sculptural group was likely made, although nothing concretely links Notke to St. George.
However, not everyone agrees with the Notke attribution. Swedish art conservator Peter Tångeberg rejects Notke’s hand to suggest that the Stockholm sculpture came from a workshop in Antwerp, a city that was the leading producer of art exported to Scandinavia in the first decades of the sixteenth century. To this day the St. George sculptural group is still the subject of art historical technical investigation. Perhaps one day we will finally gain insight into the artist of this famous Stockholm sculpture.
A three-dimensional story
The St. George and the Dragon sculptural group remains a remarkable three-dimensional work of art that uses life-like materials to tell a popular medieval story. This surviving large-scale work attests to the skill of late-medieval craftsmanship in making an illusionistic sculpture, as well as sculpture’s capacity to fulfill spiritual and political needs.
This essay has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 840531.
St. George and the Dragon in the Stockholm City Cathedral (in Swedish, Sankt Göran och draken i Storkyrkan i Stockholm), Storkyrkan, Svenska kyrkan.
Sverre Bagge, Cross and Scepter. The Rise of the Scandinavian Kingdoms from the Vikings to the Reformation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).
Lena Liepe, “The Multi-Materiality of St. George and the Dragon,” in Art, Cult, and Patronage. Die visuelle Kultur im Ostseeraum zur Zeit Bernt Notkes, ed. Anu Mänd and Uwe Albrecht (Kiel: Ludwig, 2013), pp. 199-207.
Johnny Roosval, Riddar Sankt Göran i Stockholms stora eller Sankt Nicolai kyrka (Stockholm, 1919).
Jan Svanberg, Saint George and the Dragon, trans. David Jones with photographs by Anders Qwarnström (Stockholm: Rabén Prisma, 1998).
Peter Tångeberg, Wahrheit und Mythos – Bernt Notke und die Stockholmer St.-Georgs-Gruppe – Studien zu einem Hauptwerk niederländischer Bildschnitzerei (Ostfildern: Thorbecke, 2009).
Jacobus de Voragine, “Medieval Sourcebook: The Golden Legend: St. George,” Fordham University, 2021
Matthias Weniger, “Bernt Notke. Enigma trotz Erfolg,” in Lübeck 1500. Kunstmetropole im Ostseeraum, exh. cat., ed. Jan Friedrich Richter (Petersberg: Michael Imhof Verlag, 2015), pp. 81-90.