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
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.
AMMANN, G. (1966): Ein Altarflügel aus der Werkstatt des Hans d.J. Strigel. - Montfort,
vol. 18/2, p. 250-257, Bregenz.
AMMANN, G. (1968): Gotische Plastik in Vorarlberg von 1330 bis 1530. - unpublished
PhD thesis, Univ. Innsbruck.
EGGART, H. (1933): Das neuerworbene Flügelaltärchen von Ulrich Geser 1499. - Feierabend.
Wochenbeilage z. "Vorarlberger Tagblatt", vol. 15, iss. 35: p. 429-433, Bregenz.
OPPITZ, U.-D. (1999): Eine Beutelbuchdarstellung im Vorarlberger Landesmuseum. - Jahrbuch
Vorarlberger Landesmuseumsverein, vol. 1999: p. 53-58, Bregenz.
SPAHR, G. (1970): Der heilige Magnus. Leben - Legende - Verehrung. - Allgäuer Heimatbücher,
vol. 75, 192 pp., Kempten (Verlag für Heimatpflege).