15th Century-Stained Glass – Saints of The Golden Legend: The Dragon Window, Trull, Somerset
At All Saints Church, Trull near Taunton is a fine stained-glass window known as the ‘Dragon Window’. It dates from the late 15th century.[i] The reason it is known as the ‘Dragon Window’ is that it depicts 3 saint who are known for slaying dragons – namely: St Michael, St Margaret and St George. The late 15th century was a time when the Wars of the Roses was fought, the reign of Edward IV (d. 1483) and then the decisive battle at Bosworth Field in 1485 when Richard III was killed.
An armoured, golden-locked St Michael impassively looks past the scene beneath his feet. There lies the upturned dragon with its scales and claws. It has sharp teeth with what appears to be St Michael’s shield thrust into its mouth. St Michael holds up his sword in his right hand behind his head and halo. He doesn’t wear a crown, but a tiara-like cross. The artist has filled the scene with the gold of his wings and the gold of the defeated dragon. In the side panels are what appears to be crowns.
St Margaret of Antioch
In this scene St Margaret looks down with serene intent on sticking her lance into the mouth or throat of the dragon beneath her feet. The dragon appears to have a mouthful of her gown and its forked tongue can be seen. In fact, her luxurious, starred gown appears to swamp the dragon. It maybe that it represents the idea she has emerged from the belly of the dragon. According to her hagiography as part of her ordeal she was swallowed by a dragon and upon making the sign of the cross the dragon burst open and she emerged from its belly unharmed.[ii] The dragon represents evil made tangible, and her lance is the cross that destroys it.
Further up the image and escaping around the red lining of her cloak and into the side frame, the dragon’s snake-like tail curls away. She has flowing red-golden hair and wears a crown surrounded by a halo. The side frame has a line of what appears to be lion ‘tongue stickers’ (i.e., they stick out their tongues). The window is adorned with embellished fleur-de-lis-type plants (as in the other saints’ images). There is a movement in St Margaret’s body that follows the elongated ‘S’ of the line of beauty. William Hogarth wrote on the aesthetics of beauty in the mid-18th century – in that the serpentine line is meant as a composition that provides to a pleasing expression of form. It is often seen as a posture of women in medieval art.
Creating the golden colours – In the 14th C it was discovered that by applying a solution of sliver salt to the surface of the glass and firing it, the glass became stained yellow. The amount could be varied along with the firing temperature to produce different colours – from light yellow to deep red-orange colour.[iii]
St George, the warrior saint, forces his lance into the dragon’s mouth. His dragon, like the other two, lies upside down beneath his feet with teeth, scales, spikes and claws. In the sides of the stained-glass window are fleur-de-lis – although in one panel is a crown, as portrayed in the St Michael light (perhaps changed around when being restored?).
St George is focused on his task in hand as he looks down at the dragon. He is in full armour with his red cross on his front and a helmet on his head with the visor lifted up.
The stained-glass artist has thought about the balance of the 3 saints. Whilst St Michael and St Margaret have the dragon lying with its head to their left, St George has the dragon’s head to his right. Effectively this position makes St George left-handed (the top hand on the lance is his left). I am unsure if any conclusions can be drawn from this other than the balance of the composition. It maybe that the artist was left handed – but there is no evidence of this. The medieval mind considered the left hand to be the sinister manus.
Where did the ideas for the images come from?
In 1483/4 William Caxton printed copies of Jacobus de Voragine’s work The Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea). The work is a collection of hagiographies (saints’ lives) compiled in Latin between 1250 and 1280. The work was very popular in late-medieval Europe and frequently copied and translated. It was a key source for painters of religious subjects, in particular the lives of the saints.[iv]
Woodcut of Saint Michael from The Golden Legend – printed by William Caxton in 1483/4. © Glasgow University Library
Woodcut of Saint Margaret from Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend – printed by William Caxton in 1483/4. © Reed Gallery
I was unable to find an image of St George, but I did find a description of St George as he appears in the Golden Legend in an online PhD thesis:
‘Also, in Caxton’s folio edition of the Golden Legend, an accompanying illustration shows the haloed St George, fully armed, his visor up, a sword hanging from his belt. In his mailed fist he carries a lance which he thrusts into the dragon’s upturned mouth, its long thin tongue winds round the lance and the saint’s foot is on the dragon’s neck. It has two visible feet, long, dog-like ears, big eyes, a long snout and a head which is disproportionate to its body, which is covered with scales. There is no horse but in the background there is a stretch of water.’[v]
A change in Art? Another Somerset St George
A stained glass window in St Nicholas’s Church in Brushford, on the edge of Exmoor in Somerset, depicts an image of St George that is unique in style.
Church of St Nicholas, Brushford, Somerset. Possibly 16th C and brought from France?[vi]
The scene of St George shows a development in art history. Perspective and depth of field are evident. In the foreground is a skull and bone from a victim of the dragon. In the background are trees. In the middle ground the rising rocky side of the dragon’s cave. There is no decorated background as in the 15th-C work above. The movement is flowing of St George and his horse as he lances the writhing dragon in the mouth. This image is moving into the realm of pictorial scene rather than stylised iconography.
[ii] Nicole Eddy, ‘The Pearl in the Dragon’s Belly’, Medieval Studies Research Blog: Meet Us At The Crossroads of Everything(University of Notre Dame, 2015) https://sites.nd.edu/manuscript-studies/2015/06/04/the-pearl-in-the-dragons-belly [accessed 2 May 2021].
[iii] John Baker, English Stained Glass (London: Thames and Hudson, 1979), p. ii.
[iv] Julie Gardham, ‘William Caxton: The Golden Legend, Westminster: c. 1483-1484, Sp Coll Hunterian Bg.1.1’, Glasgow University Library Special Collections Department Book of the Month, (Glasgow: Glasgow University, 2007) < https://www.gla.ac.uk/myglasgow/library/files/special/exhibns/month/jan2007.html [accessed 2 May 2021].
[v] Patricia Brown, The Role and Symbolism of the Dragon in Vernacular Saints’ Legends, 1200-1500 (University of Birmingham, 1998), p. 115 https://etheses.bham.ac.uk/id/eprint/5414/1/Brown1998PhD.pdf [accessed 2 May 2021].
[vi] ‘Church of St Nicholas’, Historic England List Entry 1263949, (1959) https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1263949[accessed 2 May 2021].
Baker, John, English Stained Glass (London: Thames and Hudson, 1979)
Brown, Patricia, The Role and Symbolism of the Dragon in Vernacular Saints’ Legends, 1200-1500 (University of Birmingham, 1998 https://etheses.bham.ac.uk/id/eprint/5414/1/Brown1998PhD.pdf [accessed 2 May 2021]
‘Church of St Nicholas’, Historic England List Entry 1263949, (1959) https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1263949[accessed 2 May 2021]
Eddy, Nicole, ‘The Pearl in the Dragon’s Belly’, Medieval Studies Research Blog: Meet Us At The Crossroads of Everything(University of Notre Dame, 2015) https://sites.nd.edu/manuscript-studies/2015/06/04/the-pearl-in-the-dragons-belly [accessed 2 May 2021]
Gardham, Julie, ‘William Caxton: The Golden Legend, Westminster: c. 1483-1484, Sp Coll Hunterian Bg.1.1’, Glasgow University Library Special Collections Department Book of the Month, (Glasgow: Glasgow University, 2007) https://www.gla.ac.uk/myglasgow/library/files/special/exhibns/month/jan2007.html [accessed 2 May 2021].
‘Our Heritage’, All Saints Church Trull https://trullchurch.org.uk/explore/our-heritage/ [accessed 2 May 2021]
‘Signs & Symbols’ Decoding Medieval & Renaissance Iconography, Reed Gallery Nov 2011 https://www.reedgallery.co.nz/exhibitions/signs-and-symbols/10 [accessed 2 May 2021]