The legend from the saint's point of view, but above all, from the dragon's. Every 23 April Catalonia is full of roses and books to celebrate the 'Diada de Sant Jordi', or Saint George's Day. It is a tradition full of deep symbolism for all Catalans.
The origins of Sant Jordi as patron saint of Catalonia
The image everyone has of Sant Jordi is the result of legend, according to which Jordi, before becoming a saint, was a Roman soldier who had been born in Palestine at the beginning of the 3rd century CE, the son of Gerontios and Polychronia.
He was a member of Diocletian's guard and, despite the Empire's persecution of Christians, he remained true to his faith, refused to obey orders, converted to Christianity and was consequently imprisoned.
He was tortured for seven years and given up for dead on three occasions, but survived despite being burnt, bound to a wheel and poisoned. Eventually, he was decapitated. As a result of his death the emperor's wife converted to Christianity and since then he has been venerated as one of the first martyrs.
Equestrian statue of Sant Jordi by Andreu Aleu Teixidor, facade of the Palau de la Generalitat.
The troubadours and authors of the medieval period further embellished the legend with the addition of more details, and Saint George slowly became one of the most revered figures, more for what he hadn't done than for what he had.
Amongst other things, Joan Amades has a lot to say in his Costumari Català about how Sant Jordi became the patron saint of Catalonia. The chronicles mention that in 1096 Pere I of Aragon invoked the saint during the reconquest of Huesca in battle against the Saracens and, in gratitude for this epic achievement, the king named him the patron of the Crown of Aragon. Furthermore, Sant Jordi was reputed to have also assisted Count Borrell, Jaume I, and Pere el Cerimoniós.
Henceforth, Sant Jordi and his name day became very popular until, in 1456 the 23rd April was declared the feast of Sant Jordi. Sculpture of Sant Jordi by Frederic Galcerà Alabart, Pati dels Tarongers, Palau de la Generalitat.
Origins of the tradition
However, the real reason why Sant Jordi is so well known is because he killed the dragon. Of all the versions of the myth that exist, our eminent folklorist, Joan Amades, locates the 'real' one in Catalonia, saying,
"Sant Jordi, knight and martyr, is the hero of a an epic event, popularly accepted as having taken place in the far-away and legendary lands of Cappadocia, but which Catalan tradition locates in the area surrounding the town of Montblanc (…) where a terrifying dragon wreaked destruction throughout the land and devoured everything in its path. The only way to assuage its insatiable hunger was to provide it with a meal of one of the town's residents, drawn by lot, every day. This system worked for a long time until, one day, it was the king's daughter that was chosen by the luck of the draw to be fed to the dragon."
3D model of the central bossed keystone in the Chapel of Sant Jordi, Palau de la Generalitat (model created by the Directorate General for Cultural Heritage).
"There were people who were prepared to take her place, but the king was severe and unrelenting. His daughter was like anyone else's daughter and her sacrifice had to be accepted. (…) Having accepted her fate, she slowly approached the dragon's cave but, as she was approaching, a knight appeared from nowhere to confront the monster. (...) To the maiden's horror, and the knight's great delight, the wild beast appeared and was set upon by the knight who wounded it badly with a lance. The knight, who was Sant Jordi, tied the beast up by the neck and gave the rope to the maid so that she could lead it back to the town herself, and the monster, fearful and meek, followed her. The people of Montblanc, who had seen everything from the city walls, awaited the arrival of the princess and the knight with open arms and, in the middle of the square, they vented their rage on the beast and soon there was nothing left of it." (Joan Amades, Costumari Català, 1904).
Sculpture of Sant Jordi by Frederic Galcerà Alabart, Pati dels Tarongers, Palau de la Generalitat.
Officiant's Sant Jordi liturgical vestment, or dalmatic, by Antoni Sadurní, Chapel of Sant Jordi, Palau de la Generalitat.
The part of the legend that claims that the blood of the dragon will give rise to a magnificent rose bush from which Sant Jordi will cut a red rose for the princess is another embellishment. The accepted history concerning the tradition of the rose is that it has its origins in a 15th-century Barcelona flower fair that was held in front of the Generalitat to mark the feast of Sant Jordi, a festival during which men would present the women they loved with a rose. Some years later, given the popularity of the festival, the Corts declared Sant Jordi's Day to be Romantic Love Day.
Books were incorporated as part of the festivities during the early 20th century when it was decided to hold a fair to promote them in Barcelona. The first was held on 7 October 1927, but two years later, coinciding with the Universal Exposition, book-sellers came out onto the streets on 23rd April. The date is also significant because 23rd April is the day William Shakespeare died and the day Miguel de Cervantes was buried. The reason, perhaps, why in 1995 UNESCO declared 23rd April to be World Book Day.
Book stall in the Rambla de Barcelona (Catalan Cultural Heritage Agency).
Rose stall in the Rambla de Barcelona (Catalan Cultural Heritage Agency).
An unexpected protagonist
A lot has been written about the origins of the knight, the roses and the books and about their symbolic importance for Catalonia. But we should not forget that there is another main character in the story, one whose importance during the last century grew sufficiently to occupy a place on the centre of the stage: the dragon.
In the West we have a distorted image of the dragon. In Asian culture it is a symbol of strength, wisdom, power, and respect, while in Western culture the dragon represents evil, the struggle between light and day, and is therefore the anti-hero in the legend.
Poster in the entrance to the Quatre Gats, by Josep Puig i Cadafalch (Catalan Cultural Heritage Agency).
Fortunately, in Catalonia, in spite of the myth, dragons have had a different lineage. The first ones arrived with the Phoenicians around 600 BCE and for hundreds of years the Greeks, Romans and Saracens continued to attribute positive values to them. However, we are talking about a dragon that is different from the one we imagine today. It was more of a giant snake with a lion's claws and the head of a mammal.
This idea changed during the Middle Ages as a consequence of the interpretations of the last book in the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, and the dragon came to be seen as a representation of the Devil on Earth. In fact, some medieval bestiaries contain descriptions that associate dragons with a fearsome, winged, snake-like animal.
The arrival of the printing press and the reproduction of illustrations in books did not help to modify this negative image. Nevertheless, despite this medieval conception, the dragon has always been closely associated with Catalan identity. It appears on the crown of Jaume I, on many heraldic symbols, in bestiaries, is used by troupes and groups, and during public festivals. It acquired special significance at a cultural level with the arrival of the Renaixença (Catalan Renaissance), and at an artistic level with the success of Modernisme. Figure of an iron dragon on the gate of Antoni Gaudí's Güell Pavilions (Catalan Cultural Heritage Agency).
The dragons of Barcelona
Barcelona, it is said, has more dragons per square metre than any other city. You can find them wherever you look, on impressive monuments or in the most hidden corners of the city. The dragon in Barcelona has assumed the status it deserves as a cultural symbol of Catalan identity and you can look for it as you pass throughout the city, or you can just let the dragon find you.
With this history of heritage as an excuse, let us explore some of the outstanding streets and spaces in Barcelona in search of dragons.
THE PALAU DE LA GENERALITAT From the very beginning Sant Jordi was represented throughout the building: in the chapel, on a retable, the cross of the door, the hall... In fact, this first phase of the building has the oldest representation, the scene, depicted on the facade in Carrer del Bisbe, of the knight fighting the dragon, the work of Pere Joan in 1418. Since then the Palau has continued to increase the number of representations and they can be found on the facade in Plaça Sant Jaume and the bronze fountain in the Pati dels Tarongers. It's a veritable Sant Jordi and the dragon museum.
This 3D image of the Chapel of Sant Jordi shows all the details, both of the architecture and the decorative and artistic elements it contains.
GAUDÍ LEAVES HIS MARK Antoni Gaudí took the dragon iconography to another level in many of his works. In fact, the trencadís, or broken tile mosaics, so characteristic of the Modernista style, make Gaudí's dragons more than spectacular.
The Casa Batlló is a clear example, the structure itself being based on the myth of Sant Jordi killing the dragon. Even the tiles of the undulating roof represent the scales on the dragon's back. Neither should we forget the trencadís dragon at the entrance to the Park Güell which some, however, consider to be a salamander or serpent killed by the Greek god Apollo.
Roof of the Casa Batlló (Catalan Cultural Heritage Agency).
Trencadís dragon of the fountain at the entrance to the Park Güell, work of Antoni Gaudí (Catalan Cultural Heritage Agency).
PUIG I CADAFALCH AT HIS MOST ASSERTIVE The architect Puig i Cadafalch used representations of Sant Jordi as a symbol to assert the Catalan cultural and political renaissance in two of his most sublime works.
The entrance to the Casa Ametller, located in the Passeig de Gràcia in Barcelona, is decorated with an impressive sculpture of Sant Jordi killing the dragon, the work of Eusebi Arnau.
The facade of the Casa Terrades, or Casa de les Punxes, includes a coloured mosaic panel depicting Sant Jordi trampling on the dragon, the work of Enric Monserdà i Vidal. It is an impressive work, famous for the inscription below which reads, "Patron Saint of Catalonia, give us back our freedom". Mosaic panel depicting Sant Jordi trampling on the dragon, the work of Enric Monserdà i Vidal, Casa de les Punxes (Catalan Cultural Heritage Agency).
CASA DELS ENTREMESOS In the Plaça de les Beates, in the district of Sant Pere i Santa Caterina, you can see the city's complete range of bestiary all year round, including the Ciutat Vella dragon. A classic image dating from 1424 (although the present one dates from 1987) which has throughout the years represented evil at Barcelona's popular festivals. Nevertheless, since the 17th century it has had an dual interpretation as representing both fire and peace because, on one hand it spits out streams of sparks from its mouth, wings and tail, and on the other hand, it accompanies the crowd with a bunch of carnations in its mouth. During the festivals it has its own dance in which, being 2.8 metres tall and 3 metres long, it staggers around.
CASA BRUNO CUADROS Halfway down the Ramblas, on the corner with Carrer de la Boqueria, is one of the Ciutat Vella's most curious buildings, known as the Casa dels Paraigües, or House of the Umbrellas. It is an eclectic work designed by Josep Vilaseca, the facade of which is decorated in a Japanese style with dragons, umbrellas and fans.
Dragon from the bestiary of the city of Barcelona (Catalan Cultural Heritage Agency).
Japanese-style dragon, by Josep Vilaseca, on the facade of the Casa dels Paraigües (Catalan Cultural Heritage Agency).
THE DRAGON OF ESPANYA INDUSTRIAL Next to Sants railway station, between the districts of Sants and Hostafrancs, is one of the city's most remarkable spaces called the Parc de l'Espanya Industrial. What was once one of the largest textile companies in Catalonia today houses a large lake flanked by steps for sitting, with gardens, a sports complex and giant slide in the form of a dragon with an open mouth. The abstract figure is the work of the Basque artist, Andrés Nagel, and it was inaugurated in 1987. It is 32 metres high and weighs 150 tons. At the time it was a popular lookout point and a fun slide for children, but it is now closed off and can only be appreciated from outside.
STREETLAMPS, POSTERS, DOORS AND GATES Barcelona is full of details in wrought iron and craftwork featuring dragons. The list could be endless, but we would like to mention some of the more curious ones. An Antoni Gaudí design: the streetlamps in the Plaça Reial, complete with entwined serpents and crowned with Hermes' winged helmet. Gaudí also designed the gate to the Güell Pavilions with its impressive wrought iron dragon with glass eyes. The poster in the entrance to the Quatre Gats, the restaurant located in the Casa Martí, the work of Josep Puig i Cadafalch. And in the district of Gràcia, especially in the area bordering the Plaça de la Virreina, many doors boast door knockers in the form of dragons.
Sculpture of a dragon by Andrés Nagel, Plaça de l'Espanya Industrial (Catalan Cultural Heritage Agency).
Wrought iron dragon on the gate of the Güell Pavilions, work of Antoni Gaudí (Catalan Cultural Heritage Agency).
Detail of the serpents entwined around the street lamps in the Plaça Reial, work of Antoni Gaudí (Catalan Cultural Heritage Agency).
Detail of a door knocker dragon in the district of Gràcia in Barcelona (Catalan Cultural Heritage Agency).
Dragons around Catalonia
These are just some of the dragons and there are many more, not just in Barcelona, but throughout Catalonia, where there are fascinating examples of the close relationship that there has been with these mythological beasts which, over time, have ceased being diabolical and have become part of the family.
We would like to invite you to seek out other dragons around the country in buildings, monuments, street furniture and so forth and to share them with us the social networks @patrimonigencat.
Happy Sant Jordi's Day to everyone!
Mosaic of Perseus and Andromeda, Museu Nacional Arqueològic de Tarragona.
Statue of Sant Jordi killing the dragon, Museu d'Arqueologia de Catalunya, Girona.
Statue of Sant Jordi killing the dragon, Fundació Apel·les Fenosa.
Sant Jordi, Museu de la Garrotxa.
Diable Rouge à cheval, Museu del Cinema, Tomàs Mallol collection.
Sant Jordi, patron saint of Catalunya, Museu del Suro de Palafrugell.
The dragon of Torroella, Museu de la Mediterrània.
Miracle of Saint Francis od Assisi, Museu de la Conca de Barberà.
Image of Sant Jordi, Museu Deu.
Detail of the Sant Jordi of the altarpiece of Sant Pere de Púbol, Museu d'Art de Girona.
Detail of the Sant Jordi of the altarpiece of Sant Feliu, Museu d'Art de Girona.