CREATIVE PROJECT BY MARK SNG (’25)
Bevis Slays the Dragon of Cologne, Unwavering
An Interpretation of Bevis of Hampton
Real and Imagined Animals in Medieval Literature (YHU2330)
As a creative response to the medieval chivalric romance Bevis of Hampton, I have produced a painting depicting the scene where Bevis takes on one of his most formidable challenges of slaying the dragon of Cologne. The painting consists of a human figure, representing Bevis, at the bottom left, with a dragon flying overhead on the right. The scene is set high in the sky amongst the clouds, with Bevis standing on a clifftop with a waterfall behind him to the bottom left of the painting. My work focuses on a few of the major themes in the poem, such as man versus nature, divine empowerment, as well as chivalry and bravery.
Through referencing the characterisation of the dragon in the poem, I explore its depiction as a supernatural animal antagonistic to humanity. The dragon is characterised as a creature of evil that is hated by humanity, described as “bothe leith and grim” (2666), its menacing qualities linking it to ideas of death and destruction. In my work, I parallel this association with evil through the colours used to paint both the dragon and the right half the painting, which utilises dark shades of black, grey and blue. The darker blue colour helps situate the setting of the painting, as it recalls the colours of a stormy sky. The black and greys are used to create ominous clouds around the dragon, which together with the stormy sky help heighten the drama of the scene and create a menacing aura that surrounds the dragon. The dragon is painted with darker shades of green to achieve a similar effect that is further heightened by the dragon’s glowing red eye.
Despite its supernatural associations, the dragon is still seen as an animal of the wild to be conquered by man. The dragon is said to reside “at Coloyne under a clive”, hence I chose the chose the setting of my painting to be that of a cliff edge. My painting closely follows the description of the dragon in the romance: for example, around the dragon’s mouth, I depicted four hornlike structures to represent its “eighte toskes”, with four on either side of its head. While the colour of the dragon was not explicitly stated, I decided to paint it in a greenish colour, a reference to its ability to spit venom (2711). I used lighter shades of green and yellow for the webbings of the wing to create an iridescent quality to mimic the shine described in the poem. I followed along with the description of the tail in the poem, painting it as long and thick, appearing almost snake-like. Although the dragon was described as a maned creature, I decided to replace the hair with horns and spike, as I felt that a haired dragon resembled more closely the common depictions of Chinese dragons. The horns also helped enhance the dragon’s fearsome quality and were painted in locations such as around the neck area, similar to that of a lion, and along the top of its spine, to reference the parallel to a stallion.
Divine empowerment is especially prominent in Bevis’ fight with the dragon. Having been incapacitated many times by the dragon, each time Bevis’ strength is renewed through prayer and the presence of a well with healing properties that a “virgine hadde bathede in” (2805). His miraculous renewal of strength after each fall can be seen as an allusion to baptism and a sign of the power man holds over animals bestowed by God, as seen in the bestiary depictions of Adam naming the animals. I chose to depict this through the use of brighter white clouds and a light bluish grey sky over the silhouetted figure of Bevis on the left of the painting. I also chose to include light rays shining down on Bevis to represent God’s empowerment and blessing over him in his fight. While the poem depicts the healing water source as a well, I decided to instead represent it as a waterfall. I felt that this would be more appropriate to my chosen setting of the wilderness cliffside. The waterfall with its flowing water felt closely related to the idea of water as a purifying element, as wells are often associated with more stagnant groundwater. With its brilliant blue and white highlights, the waterfall appears to have a bright iridescent quality that helps connote its imbued magical healing properties. The divine empowerment Bevis experiences was hence mainly depicted through the natural landscape, creating an interesting contrast from the previously discussed opposition of man and nature. In my painting, aspects of nature seem to be also aiding Bevis in his fight against the dragon, echoing biblical moments where God appears to humans through natural elements such as the burning bush (Exodus 3).
Lastly, my painting also aims to explore Bevis’ chivalry and bravery in his battle with the dragon. Despite the horrifying nature of the dragon, Bevis chooses to continue with his quest even after the giant Ascopard backs out on him. In my painting, Bevis is depicted as a lone figure confronting the dragon. He stands tall atop the cliff with a spear in hand that will later be shattered, as referenced in the poem (2771). Bevis is depicted with a flowing cape behind him, an added feature that I felt added to his heroic quality. Despite the poem’s description of the dragon’s monstrous size, I noticed that depictions of St George slaying the dragon often portray the creature as a smaller animal (Fig 1.).
While this could convey man’s conquering of nature, I chose to stick with the actual proportions described in the poem in order to heighten the bravery of Bevis through the juxtaposition of size. The dragon takes up the entire upper right of the painting, while Bevis appears as a small figure near the bottom left. This diagonal composition helps create a tension in this confrontation as the ominous form looms overhead, yet the smaller unfazed Bevis still stands tall in the face of his giant adversary, reinforcing his bravery as unwavering.
Herzman, Ronald B. “Bevis of Hampton.” Four Romances of England, Edited by Graham Drake and Eve Salisbury, 1999, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv2j6xqm1.
Holy Bible, American Bible Society, New York, 2002
How Saint George’s Dragon Got Its Wings – Jstor Daily. https://daily.jstor.org/how-saint-georges-dragon-got-its-wings/.