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Museum Dragons
at the Vorarlberger Landesmuseum
(Bregenz / Austria)


Only a few of Vorarlberg´s villages are connected to dragon lore. However, these legends don´t have any impact on everyday life any more. They are forgotten by most people, and not a single monument or even an inn remind us of these dragons. All you will encounter is a scenic landscape (which is still worth the journey!).

Any dragon lover comming to Vorarlberg should visit the Vorarlberger Landesmuseum in the province´s capital Bregenz. The first floor is dedicated to the prehistoric and roman period of the country. I could not encounter any dragon there. The second floor hosts various items connected to everyday life both of Vorarlberg´s nobility and the common people - and at least two dragons:

At the immediate entrance, still in the staircase, you will find a reproduction of the coat of arms of Hugo von Montfort (1357 to April 4th 1423). Hugo - a member of the local aristocracy - was not only a politician, but also a minnesinger. A manuscript - which is stored at the University of Heidelberg (Germany) - not only contains his complete works (a novelty at that time), but also shows his coat of arms with a dragon-like creature hanging from the plume of the helmet. The reason for this is rather simple, yet astounding: Hugo was a member of the knight´s society of the salamander.

hugo´s salamander
the devil-dragon A wooden panel in the last room to the right shows St. Micheal weighing the souls. The devil in form of a dragon clings to the scale of the sinner, but still the pious soul is heavier. You might easly overlook this piece of rural art. The figures are only faintly encarved into the wood - and you need a good power of observation to detect the dragon.

On the third floor you will encounter more of these phantastic creatures. That floor hosts a remarkable collection of artworks, e.g., some paintings by the artist Angelika Kauffmann. Dragons can be found on altar-pieces from the late gothic up to the baroque period. They are usually connected to ubiquitous saints such as St. George or St. Margareta. There is no obvious connection to the places / churches where the pieces originate from.

Turn first to the right. One of the showcases contains a small winged altar dated 1499 AD (coll.No. VLM N 393). It originates from the small mountain village Laterns near Rankweil. The paintings on the wings are attributed to the local artist Ulrich Geser (2nd half of the 15th century). In its central part it shows the wooden statues of St. Leonhard, St. Martin, St. George and St. Sebastian carved by an unknown artist (EGGART, 1933). St. George has dismounted, and his horse is not shown. His right foot stands on the back of a rather small dragon (compareable to a young alligator in size). In boths hands he holds a lance stabbing the evil creature beneath his feet. The dragon has two legs. Its back is ornamented with a crest, but it does not show any signs of wings. It is only 5 cm long, so it can easily be overlooked!

geser´s dragon This is not the only piece by Ulrich Geser preserverd in the museum. An altar-piece shows St. Margaretha and St. Kilian. Margareta on the left holds a staff ending in a cross. She wears a crown and a green cloak which covers also the larger part of the dragon beneath her feet. To her left you will recognize parts of the tail, to her right the head and two legs of the beast. As most of the dragon´s body is behind the saint, it is impossible to tell whether he has wings, or whether he has two or four legs. His leathery skin has a warm, yellowish brown hue and does not show any hints of scales or fur.
The museum hosts another altar-wing showing St. Margareta, dated approximately 1480 AD (VLM GEM 224). It is attributed to Hans jr. Strigel, who lived during the second half of the 15th century (AMMANN, 1966). The Strigel-family owned a painting studio in Memmingen (Bavaria). Their works can be found all over southern Germany, but also in Graubünden (Switzerland). On the altar-piece three female saints form a self-contained group. Catharina stands at the left in her blue robe. Her left hand rest on the sword, and the wheel lies beneath her feet. Maria Magdalena takes the central position. She wears a golden gown with black ornaments and a red mantle with green lining. In her right hand she holds a round wooden box of ointment, and she lifts its lid with her left. Margareta on the right is clad in a green cloak with a light red lining. Similar to Catharina she wears a crown. To her feet in the grass wriggles a dragoness. She lies on her back just like a cat ready to play. But playing is not what she has in mind, and her mouth is stabbed by Margareta´s staff. Thus lying on the back is a gesture of total submission. The dragoness is green with a whitish-beige belly and rosy dugs. Her leathery skin has obviously no scales. She is unwinged and has four legs with five toes each. However, the artist has forgotten to paint the left foreleg! For me she seems to be a mixture of a long-necked dog and a tiny dinosaur. strigel´s dragon

Before we stroll on to the next dragon I want to draw your attention to a small detail. When I stated that the dragon wriggles "in the grass", I did of course not mean an ordinary meadow. It rather resembles a kind of ideal garden in which each plant bears its own symbolism. You need not be a botanist to identify the wild strawberry. Similar to the unicorn the interpretation of this plant is very contradictory. The strawberry is a sweet, pleasant fruit. But it takes a lot of them to become satiated. A legend gives the simple reason. One day the LOrd came down on earth in the guise of an old man. He met a boy who had just collected strawberries, and asked him what he had in his baskett. The boy answered: "Nothing!". To which the LOrd replied: "Then it should be nothing". Thus you will never be satisfied and find it really hard to quit eating strawberries. Later they were connected to voluptiousness and sexuality, where some people too cannot get enough. Remember that red had allways been the colour of love. And the sweet, rosy little berries were sometimes compared to nipples. Of course this is not the symbolism we expect on an alter-piece. But the strawberry also has a different meaning, derived from the fact that it usually possesses three leaves. They represent the Holy Trinity, and that is why you will find it quite often in christian art. But back to the dragons.

Remarkable is an altar-wing dated 2nd half of the 15th century (VLM GEM 226). According to the museum´s explanation it shows St. Martin and St. Margareta. However, on the altar painting itself the two saints are denominated as St. Diepold (= Theobald) and St. Justina! The femail saint stands above an anthropomorph creature. Margareta was tempted in prison by the devil, first in form of a charming young man, later as a fierce dragon who threatened to devour her. She is usually shown with the defeated dragon beneath her feet. As this creature does not look charming at all, I do not think that the unknown artist wanted to combine these two emanations of the devil. He rather tried to remind the spectator that it was not only an ordinary supernatural being but the devil himself who was overcome by the saint (which was a much more honourabel deed than just slaying a dragon). anthropomorph
magnus´ dragon A carved wooden panel represents St. Barbara and St. Magnus (VLM N 60, dated approximately 1480/90; AMMANN, 1968; OPPITZ, 1999). The latter is wearing a soutane and a biretta. His right hand is front of his breast. In his left he carries pouch-book: The cover of a breviary or prayer-book forms a kind of pouch which permits easy carrying. A four-legged dragon without any wings withers beneath his feet looking up to the saint. His hind legs are not well preserved and thus seem to be a little distorted. This dragon reminds me of a pygmy dinosaur with the ears of a goat. Although the name Magnus sounds scandinavian, he is an alpine saint. Both in Kempten and Rosshaupten near Füssen in the Allgäu region he had to fight dragons. He became a popular saint and was often invoked to banish all kinds of vermin (SPAHR, 1970).

An altar wing from the 16th century shows two different scenes (VLM GEM 107). In the upper half GOdfather holds His Son in His arms. He is flanked by St. Catharina and St. Antonius. The legend of St. George is the theme of the lower half. The well armoured knight is seated on his horse. In his right hand he yields a sword just preparing the deadly stroke to a rather small dragon in front of him. This dragon reminds me of a large, fat dog, without any fur or scales, but with a blackish green, leathery skin. He has allready be wounded by the saint´s lance. A part of it still pierced the dragon´s breast while other broken parts lie beneath the horse. Blood is pouring out of the wound. To the right beneath the dragon you can find the skull and ribs of one of the former victims of the beast. The beautiful princess is down on her knees praying to God for her and the knight´s rescue. A small lamb lies by her side. Far in the upper right backgrond there is a castle with the king and the queen watching the sceen from a parapet. However, they don´t look like scared parents, but rather seem to represent curious voyeurs! A ruined farmhouse in the background on the upper left symbolizes the devastations by the dragon. Other details are a pilgrim roaming the landscape and a farmer with his scythe kneeling in front of a wayside shrine. Both are unproportionally small compared to the other persons and serve as mere decoration. doggy-dragon



Sources:



[ The Historical Dragon Page - Startseite | Homepage ]

[ Vorarlberger Naturschau ]



© MM by J. Georg Friebe
& Vorarlberger Naturschau, Dornbirn (Austria)
fax +43-(0)5572-232358
snail-mail Marktstrasse 33, A-6850 Dornbirn, Austria

created 29.01.2000