April 6, 1483 is one of the dates most commonly given for the birth of the artist Raphael. It was the date of his death in 1520. Raphael, the old master painter whose works are noted as being among the most serene and tranquil of the Italian Renaissance, had a strong but often unmentioned connection to the preternatural.
Religion played a central role in Raphael’s personal and professional lives. Some of his best works can be found in the Vatican where his Stanze, the first of a series of four rooms also called the Raphael Rooms, includes The School of Athens, The Parnassus and the Disputa, three of his most famous and recognizable works. The Disputa is arguably his best. It is not surprising that angels and ancestors, especially saints and long-dead philosophers, played a part in Raphael’s work. Recall that art, especially religious art, was a primary means of communicating and reminding a largely illiterate populace of religious stories and more even within the walls of the Papal Palace.
It is in one of his lesser known and earliest works, however, that the strongest connection with the preternatural can be found. St. George and the Dragon is a small and unremarkable work from Raphael’s early career in Urbino, the town where he grew up. It is one of two cabinet paintings by Raphael depicting the saint, a fair maiden (unnamed) and a fearsome beast that is probably a dragon.
The creature does not bear much resemblance to dragons as we know them today. It is neither the fire-breathing giant of Middle Earth or fairy tales nor is it the stylized serpents of Chinese or Aztec cultures, though it shares some characteristics with both, as well as with other dragons from around the globe.
Raphael’s dragon is small, not even as large as a horse. It is black, well, mostly black, with a pale belly. A dog-like head rides atop a long, almost serpentine neck. It’s difficult to tell how many limbs the creature has. Certainly there are two legs, and possibly four, which end in feet that are both clawed and webbed. It also has wings although whether it could fly or not is a great question even than how many limbs it has.
Despite these questions, Raphael’s dragon is far more likely to exist than more modern imaginings. Raphael’s dragon was of a size with predators known throughout Italy and Europe at that time. Not only is it roughly the size of a big cat or wolf, the coloring would make it difficult to spot, especially if it were nocturnal. And there was plenty of habitat for it to hide in during the first decade of the 1500’s.
In fact, at that size it is easy to see how they might even have survived to this day. Did the old master know something modern man doesn’t?