Thursday, March 29, 2012

In the name of St. George: Fifteenth-century Bone Saddles


The following post derives from my undergraduate honors thesis on a group of bone horse saddles from the fifteenth century carved with scenes of courtly love, knights, and dragons. While it may fit best under the heading of "Medieval," the project was formative for my current interest in Arms and Armor.   My paper suggested that the defined group of objects, traditionally associated with Kings Sigismund of Hungary and his Order of the Dragon, were actually just the surviving relics of a literary based fashion trend, of which a portion were decorated with iconography relating to Saint George and protection from an “other.”  The purpose of this post is to introduce the saddles and to briefly explore the meaning and significance of Saint George in the iconography. 

Jankovich Saddle
Budapest, Hungarian
National Museum
(55.3119) 

"Help, o Lord! May God help in the name of St. George. Help, St. George."[1]

These words decorate the bone panels of a saddle belonging to a group of exceptional works embedded within the spectacle of late medieval European court cultures of display. A list of twenty-one such saddles first presented by Julius von Schlosser in 1894 has since been added to by a handful of scholars.[2] Most recently, twenty-eight saddles listed by Mária Verő in 2006 appeared in the catalog of an exhibit on the court and patronage of Sigismund von Luxembourg.[3] While ten examples of these prunksattel currently reside in the United States and England, no significant studies appear on them in English.

The ivory saddle itself appears as an iconographical motif in French and English literature dating back to the twelfth century. Bone saddles are pesented as proof of wealth and royalty in Chrétien de Troyes' tale of Aeneas and Dido, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and the ballad of Thomas of Ercildoune.[4] In an analysis of fictive Gothic ivories in medieval romances, Jean Campbell suggests that the bone saddle mentioned in the tale of Aeneas was a product of the poet's mind, and that "through a combination of literary convention and poetic imagination, such glittering objects took on a life of their own in the pages or medieval romance.”[5] Since the surviving saddles all date from the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, it is likely that the literary saddles were inspirations for the group that exists today. Whether or not the saddles from the twelfth century existed, fifteenth century nobility wanted to emulate the wealth and grandeur of legendary figures they read about in their preciously illuminated and illustrated manuscripts.

Tratzburg SaddleMetropolitan Museum of Art, New York acc# 04.3.249

The number of known extant saddles currently stands at twenty-nine.[6] They are dispersed in museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Bargello of Florence, the Wallace Collection of London, and the Hungarian National Museum of Budapest. The saddles are composed of wooden frames covered first in a layer of birch bark, then raw hide and finally fastened with plates of ivory. Based on closer examinations of the surfaces, particularly the marks left by the tools used in carving, recent scholars determined that the saddles are carved from plates of stag horn, a stronger material better suited for riding.[7] Because of the traces of paint and evidence of gilt details, some scholars hypothesize that the saddles were too ornate for use, and were merely acquired for their value. However, the wear on the carvings and paint seems to prove otherwise. They were most likely used, albeit sparingly, during victory parades and ceremonial events. While the total list stands at twenty-nine objects, a handful are of questionable authenticity and suffer from severe and sometimes total damage to their pictorial programs. [8] Other than their materials, shapes, and dates, the remaining saddles share many iconographical motifs which will be briefly explored below.

Saint George and the Dragon detail, Kormend Saddle
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts (69.944) 


Represented in various forms battling various figures, the dragon appears on fifteen of the saddles over thirty times. [9] Extremely popular motifs in the middle ages, partially due to their frequent mention in Latin and vernacular Bibles, dragons are attributes of pagan lands and deserts. The dragon symbolizes moral and religious deviance and is a danger to humans in both the material world and the spiritual world.[10] The saddles show the creatures crouching into small spaces, spitting fire bolts, and struggling with humans. Although their general popularity may account for their presence, the numerous references to the legend of Saint George and seem to offer a closer connection with the cult of the saint.

The legend of Saint George and the dragon makes its first appearance in Jacobus Voragine’s Golden Legend. George, a Christian knight, was deployed to a city on the outskirts of the empire. Upon arrival, he discovered that the town was under siege from a “plague bearing dragon” that lurked in the local pond. Just as the king’s daughter was about to step into the lake to be sacrificed, George rode in on his horse and gravely wounded the dragon. After tying the dragon’s mouth shut, he made the princess walk it into the city where he proclaimed that the only way he would kill the dragon was if all twenty-thousand men were baptized and renounced their pagan ways in favor of Christianity. Once this mass-conversion took place, Saint George, standing next to the animal, struck it again and killed it, clearly a metaphor for having struck and killed the society’s pagan ways.[11]

Saint George and the Dragon detail, Rhédey SaddleBudapest, Hungarian National Museum (55.3118) 


The identification of the knights on the saddles as Saint George is made easy by inscriptions, details in clothing, and the presence of other figures from the tale, such as the kneeling and praying princess. The reason for and meaning of his presence is slightly more complex.[12] The chosen methods of depiction offer some clues as to his prominence. The images of the Saint are divided into two groups; the Saint on horse wounding the dragon, and the Saint on foot, post- mass conversion, killing the dragon. Four depict the saint on horseback, spear in left hand and sword in the right, in the process of attacking the dragon.[13] Two of these saddles are of questionable authenticity, leaving two whose other main themes are love and virtue. These saddles seem to have the Saint present to elaborate on the chivalric aspects of the tale of Saint George. Six of the saddles show the Saint on foot rather than horseback, implying that their message was more closely related to the second half of the story in which the mass conversion and not the valiant slaying of evil is the focus.[14] The image of Saint George on foot with his lance speared into the mouth of the dragon while its tail winds around the Saint’s foot was popular in fifteenth century Central Europe and can be found on a wooden statue of Saint George in the Nuremburg National Museum and on many contemporary stove tiles displayed at the Budapest History Museum. This exact detail is also found on the saddles at the Hungarian National Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts,[15] which was previously used to suggested that the saddles were linked to Central Europe.[16]

Jankovich Saddle, detail of Order of the Dragon symbol
Budapest, Hungarian
 National Museum
 (55.3119) 

The connection of these saddles with this region, specifically with the Kingdom of Hungary has a long history. The nature and degree of this connection has long been debated between German, Hungarian, and Italian scholars. At the moment, the association of the saddles with the early fifteenth century order of knights, Drachenordens, or The Order of the Dragon is stated as fact on the informational cards displayed next to the saddles in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Glasgow Museum of Art and others. The theory comes from the presence of the symbol of the order, a dragon with its tail wrapped around its neck, on the back cantle-lobe of a saddle in the Hungarian National Museum, known as the Jankovitch saddle.[17] Founded in 1408 by Hungarian King and future Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund von Luxembourg, the Order served to defend Sigismund and Christianity against his enemies to the South-East and at home.[18] The name of the order comes from the legend of Saint George, and is also known as the Order of the Defeated Dragon. The presence of this symbol has led many scholars to believe that many, if not all, of the saddles were produced for this Order, possibly as gifts for induction ceremonies.[19] This conclusion is problematic and unlikely since the dates do not match and the symbol itself was used for generations after the death of the King Sigismund by the Hungarian nobility. The Báthory family of Hungary, whose members were ranked highly in military, ecclesiastical and administrative positions, for example used some version of the symbol in their family crest through the seventeenth century. Whether or not the saddles have anything to do with the Order of the Dragon, the presence of Saint George and the large number of dragons shows a clear emphasis on protection from the world beyond the borders of Christianity.

This emphasis on protection reveals itself in other aspects of the decorative programs of the saddles. In addition to dragons, there are numerous composite figures of griffins, lions, and human-headed creatures that often populate the pages of bestiaries. While the dragons, griffins, jackals, and devils dispersed in the imagery are aspects of the dangers beyond the physical borders, the creatures with more human characteristics represent the borders of rationality. On a saddle in the Hungarian National Museum there are two Wildmen representing the inner beast. The randomly dispersed images of apes holding the hands of women or flanking a pair of lovers in whispered conversation are personifications of the irrationality of “foolish men who have been betrayed into the power of women on account of their lust.”[20]

Aristotle and Phyllis detail, Rhédey Saddle
Budapest, Hungarian National Museum (55.3118) 


Perhaps the best example of a combination of pagan and irrational is the scene of Aristotle and Phyllis on a saddle at the Hungarian National Museum.[21] The aged Aristotle crawls on all fours with a young woman riding his back. Complete with the girdle and whip, the scene depicts Aristotle caught by his pupil, Alexander the Great, engaging in the same irrational acts that Aristotle warned him against. It illustrates that women and love can turn even the wisest of men into a fool. The tale originates from the East, specifically the Buddhist Jataka Tales and was popular soon after its introduction in the west in the thirteenth century.[22] On the surface, the scene was read as a warning to men to be wary of the power of women. Additionally, according to George Satron, any medieval commoner would immediately recognize that “Aristotle had been a pagan. His shameful failure illustrated … the vanity of philosophy, especially of that philosophy which was as yet unredeemed by Christian grace.”[23] Aristotle’s paganism presumably held special meaning in lands where Christian monarchs struggled with holding back the non Christian kingdoms to the East and quelling revolts in their own countries. While this seems to support localization to a place with direct and complex relationships with neighboring non-Christians, it must be mentioned that Aristotle and Phyllis are also a favorite couple of the French, where patrons loved the intrigue of the story and had just finished a string of crusades to try to tame the pagan lands.
            Much of the remaining iconography on the saddles deals with these same themes of love and lust. Lovers are seen on nearly all of the figurally decorated saddles. Attempts made to identify the specific sources for these scenes are for the most part inconclusive. It is suggested that rather than coming from a few specific sources, the scenes are an eclectic mixture of late Gothic romances from across generations and geographic regions. Lovers found on the saddles are carved into garden landscapes complete with gates, large overgrown flowers, symbolic animals and couples in various stages of courtship.
            The turbulent fifteenth century may have prompted the need to show imagery relating to the defense of the borders of Christianity. The Ottoman were closing in on the Balkans and the Hussite Wars were raging in Bohemia. The age of exploration was at its height. The evocation of Saint George could be linked to a wider range of cultural issues untouched in the scholarly literature. In the future, I aim to explore these connections more thoroughly.


[1] Translated by (Grancsay 1937) Stephen Grancsay in “An Early Sculptured Saddle.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 32, no. 4 (1937) 92-94. The saddle on which the motto is located in the appendix under #1.
[2] Julius Schlosser, “Elfenbeinsättel das Ausgehenden Mittelalters,” Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wein 15 (1894) 259-294.
[3] Mária Verő, “Bemerkungen zu den Beinsätteln aus der Sigismundzeit.” In Sigismundus Rex et imperator: Kunst und Kultur zur Zeit Sigismunds von Luxemburg 1387-1437. Edited by Philipp von Zabern, 270-278. Budapest: W-Press Kft., 2006.
[4] Robert Brydall, “Notice of Armour and Arms at Eglinton Castle, Three Scottish Swords, etc.” Transactions of the Glasgow Archeological Society 4 (1903): 38-48.
[5] Campbell, C. Jean. “Courting, Harlotry and the Art of Gothic Ivory Carving”. Gesta 34, no. 1 (1995): 11.
[6] In addition to the twenty-eight listed by Ver• in 2006, there is another saddle made of wood that belongs to the group in the Wallace collection, appendix number 25.
[7] Stephen Grancsay. "An Early Sculptured Saddle," The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 32, No. 4. (Apr., 1937) 94.
[8] Two saddles can immediately be removed from the list because they are made of wood, covered in gesso and painted to resemble bone. They are both identical replicas of a saddle at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and were probably created in the late 19th century, when the production of fake ivories was at its height. These saddles are in the Wallace Collection (inv.# A415, in the appendix of this paper under #25), and the Musee l'Armee (G. 546, appendix #26). For a discussion of gothic ivory reproduction in the 19th century see: Barnet, Peter, ed. Images in Ivory: Precious Objects of the Gothic Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. (79) Another two, one from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (accession #A 73, appendix #21) and the other from the Deutsch Historisches Museum in Berlin (appendix #24) have been placed into the category of questionable authenticity for this paper because of their vastly different approaches to decoration and the lack of technical skill in which they were executed, which may be due in part to bad restoration. It is possible to suggest that these saddles were made at a later date to mimic the others. Two saddles, one in the Deutsch Historisches Museum in Berlin (accession #W1010, Appendix #22) and one in the Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum (accession #E 1939.65.bx, appendix #23) have no figural decoration, and instead are covered in stylized swirl motifs. These appear to have only the shape and material in common with the saddles and will not be addressed here. The damaged saddles are numbers 14 through 17 in the Appendix and are located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Wallace Collection in London, the Museo Bardini in Florence, and formerly the Zschille collection, current whereabouts unknown. While these saddles will not be addressed again formally, when in the service of making a point, they may be listed as examples containing certain images along with the other saddles.
[9] Dragons are found on saddles listed in the appendix under numbers: 1-8, 10, 13, 18, 20, and 24-26.
[10] Louise W. Lippincott, "The Unnatural History of Dragons," Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, 44 no. 334 (Winter, 1981), 2-24.
[11] Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend. Ed. F.S. Ellis. London: Temple Classics, 1993, 238-242.
[12] Three saddles mention Saint George by name in prayers inscribed in the bone. Two saddles ask for the help and blessing of the Saint, and one mentions him in a love sonnet. The original inscription in German on the saddle with the prayer reads: "HILF, VOL AUF SAND (JO)RGEN NAM-ILF (?) RITTER SAND JORG." The saddle is in the Appendix under # 15, The other reads: ICH HOFF DES PESTEN. HILF GOT WAL AUF SAND JORGEN NAM. In the Appendix under # 13. The love sonnet on the saddle in the appendix under #7 reads ALLAIN MEIN ADER LOC GAR SEIN; RITT DAD JORIG; DICH LIBE GOT; HUERD?; ICH HAN NICHT LIEBERE WEN SICH. The feathered diadem is discussed in conjunction with medieval stove tiles from Eastern Europe by Anna Maria Gruia, "Saint George on Medieval Stove Tiles from Transylvania, Moldovia and Wallachia: An Iconograogical Approach." Studia Patzinaka, 3 (2006) 10. The saddles with the diadems are in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (Appendix #2), and in the Hungarian National Museum (Appendix #5). The kneeling princess is found on saddles in the Appendix under #s 3, 6, and 7.
[13] Saint George on horseback is shown on saddles listed in the appendix under numbers 3, 6, 7, and 24.
[14] Saint George is depicted on foot spearing the dragon is found on saddles in the Appendix under #s: 1,2, 4, 5, 8, and 20.
[15] Saddles in Appendix under #s 2 and 5.
[16] Eisler, János. “Zu den fragen der beinsättel des Ungarischen Nationalmuseums II.” Folia Archaeologica 30 (1979): 211.
[17] Appendix # 3
[18] Gezá Nagy “Hadtörténeti Ereklyék a Magyar Nemzeti Múzeumban.” Hadtörténeti Közlemények 11 (1910): 223-243.
[19] In support of this argument see I. Genthon, “Monumenti artistici ungheresi all’estero.” Acta Historiae Artium 16 (1970): 5-35.) for an argument against it see János Eisler, “Zu den Frangen der Beinsättel des Ungarischen Nationalmuseums I.” Folia Archaeologica 28 (1977): 189-209. and János Eisler, “Zu den Frangen der Beinsättel des Ungarischen Nationalmuseums II.” Folia Archaeologica 30 (1979): 205-244.)
[20] Keith P. F. Moxey, “Master E. S. and the Folly of Love.” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 11, no. 3/4 (1980): 125-148.
[21] Appendix # 5.
[22] George Sarton, “Aristotle and Phyllis.” Isis 14, no. 1 (1930): 8-19.
[23] (Sarton 1930, 11)

1 comment:

  1. "Please brighten up this waiting room," says my busy boss, one morning "Put some art on the wall." Admittedly, the room is on the drab side but as a car spare part supply office, I thought that not many of the clients coming through notice much of it.
    From wahooart.com, I ordered online canvas prints about car art, of course, like this one http://en.wahooart.com/A55A04/w.nsf/OPRA/BRUE-5ZKEMR by Salvador Dali.

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