15 September 2010 - 07 November 2010
For centuries, people were convinced that dragons were real. Tirelessly, crypto-zoologists (students of fabulous creatures) were searching for evidence of their existence: dinosaur eggs and footprints, skeletons … even ‘real’ dragons, clever fabrications by scheming forgers for display in curiosity collections.
In Western tradition especially, people and dragons did not quite get along. The dragon personified all that was evil, and dragon slayers became very popular figures. In the epic saga The Song of the Nibelungs, the hero Siegfried slays the dragon Fafner. Saint George makes his ubiquitous appearance practically all over Europe as the armoured knight with his lance on the neck of an expiring dragon at his feet. Nor did Saint Michael lay behind in the battle against the Evil One. Hercules, Cadmus, and other mythical personages of extreme courage and daring invariably make sure that the dragon bites the dust. Not surprising then that the fire-breathing monster also played a prominent role in the military world. He was represented on helmets, shields, and even rifles, as a fearsome symbol not to be trifled with. On war posters, the dragon was often depicted as symbol of the perfidious foe.
But in the East, things were different! Asiatic dragons, although they may look every bit as frightening and unpalatable as their Western cousins, are considered to be positive symbols and generally looked upon as people’s allies. The Chinese dragon, for instance, promises nothing but good things. Royal cloaks, with their abundant embroideries of fabulous dragon motifs, display its elevated and propitious status.
‘East meets West’... Eventually, eastern dragons infiltrated also our culture via the Chinese-esque fad, an eighteenth-century wave of Chinese styles. Numerous porcelain tea sets are testimonials of this vogue. The famed ‘Ming Dragon’ tea set from Meissen remains in production even today. And Chinese dragons also remain popular in tattoos, fairy tales, cartoon strips, and fantasy tales.
Even recreation parks feature dragons, and soft cuddly dragon toys are meant to keep children safe from scary dreams. And those ‘dark and nebulous’ dragon creatures personify our psychic anxieties and repressed complexes. They are often perverse symbols that we experience with both revulsion and fascination, imagery that leaves nobody untouched. In his turn, the romantic dragon has nothing to do with sentimental tales. He made his appearance in the nineteenth century, when renewed interest was displayed in the Middle Ages. A great number of European artists gave shape and form to this precursor of the fantasy dragon. He was turned into a favourite motif for fountains, display objects, jewellery boxes (the dragon as treasurekeeper),…
This coming fall, visitors to Gaasbeek Castle will be beset by dragons in all shapes and sizes and colours. Don’t doubt that this will prove a spectacular, not to say a veritable ‘firebreathing’, exhibition!