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Born in 1577, Peter Paul Rubens’s early life was influenced by religion and being raised as a Catholic.
The themes used in many of artist’s Flemish Baroque work reflected his upbringing, leading to a Counter-Reformation style that challenged Protestant thought and art.
Rubens was known for creating portraits, often of himself and his friends. He also painted landscapes, hunting scenes, altarpieces, and other works.
His art was often inspired by mythology and religious subjects. He illustrated extravagant scenes with stunning use of colour and texture. His art also focused on movement and sensuality.
Rubens started his artistic apprenticeship at the age of 14. His early studies included mentoring from leading painters in Antwerp, first with Tobias Verhaeght and later with Adam van Noort and Otto van Veen. In 1600, Rubens travelled to Italy where he eventually settled in the court of Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga. Rubens became inspired by Titian and Caravaggio. The colouring and compositional style of Paolo Caliari (also known as Paolo Veronese) also effected the young artist’s work. Rubens was also influenced by Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. He often reproduced art by Italian masters during his education, which included studies of Greek and Roman classical art.
It was during his artistic studies in Italy that Rubens completed ‘Saint George and the Dragon’. The piece was painted in Genoa, a city whose patron saint is Saint George. Created between 1605 and 1607, the original oil on canvas is housed in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. It measures 427 by 312 centimetres (168 by 123 inches). The painting shows the Christian hero on a white stallion readying his sword to slay the dragon, which is already wounded by Saint George’s lance. Representing the church, a princess stands next to a lamb in the background.
‘Saint George and the Dragon’ is based on the thirteenth century ‘Golden Legend’, the story of a town plagued by a dragon. The town’s people feed two sheep every day to appease the dragon. With no sheep left, their children are eventually fed to the dragon based on a lottery. When the king’s daughter it chosen, the ruler tries to save her by offering his wealth and half of his kingdom. After the people refuse, the daughter is sent to the dragon. Passing by chance, Saint George stays with the princess until the dragon emerges. George makes the Sing of the Cross before charging on horseback. With the princess’s girdle around the wounded dragon’s neck, the dragon follows the princess as if it was on a leash. After the town agrees to convert to Christianity, George kills the dragon.
The story of Saint George has been the source of inspiration for many artists beyond Rubens. The scene of the hero defeating the dragon has been used as a motif since at least the tenth and eleventh centuries, while reverence to the saint dates to at least the seventh century. Since the late Middle Ages, Saint George increased in popularity as a subject for art. The Renaissance produced several paintings portraying the heroic tale, including Paolo Uccello’s ‘Saint George and the Dragon’ (1470), Giovanni Bellini’s ‘Saint George Fighting the Dragon (1471), Bernt Notke’s ‘Saint George and the Dragon’ (1484-89), Raphael’s ‘St. George’ (1504) and ‘St. George and the Dragon (1504-06), and Tintoretto’s ‘Saint George and the Dragon’ (1555). In addition to Ruben’s work, modern works inspired by the tale include Edward Burne-Jones’s ‘Saint George ad the Dragon’ (1866) and Gustave Moreau’s ‘Saint George and the Dragon’ (1870).
Rubens’s ‘Saint George and the Dragon’ is a stunning example of the imposing and monumental scenes often illustrated during his time in Italy. His art from this period often featured strong and powerful figures as well as dynamic compositions with directed light. Saint George was also the focus of later work by Rubens. In around 1630, he created the oil on canvas ‘Landscape with Saint George and the Dragon’. Saint George and the Dragon symbolised the relationships between Rubens and Charles I of England. The painting honours the patron saint of England and depicts the English countryside as its setting.
Rubens returned to Belgium in 1609, where he lived for the rest of his life. He was appointed as a court painter for the Archduke of Austria Albert VII and Infanta Clara Eugenia, sovereigns of the Hapsburg Netherlands from 1598 until 1621. In the role, Rubens travelled throughout Europe on diplomatic missions while completing commissions. His later life also coincide with the creation of Rubens's most famous paintings, including the ‘Assumption of the Virgin Mary’ for the Cathedral of Antwerp. In 1640, Rubens died of heart failure in Antwerp.