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Thinking Out Loud

There Be Dragons

by Michael Jinkins | Feb 11, 2014

Recently, my old friend Scott Black Johnston and I spent a morning wandering through The Cloisters at the northern-most tip of Manhattan Island. This museum, which is part of the Metropolitan Museum system, contains some of the most extraordinary treasures of medieval art and architecture to be found anywhere in the world.  

The seven beautiful (and piercingly sad) tapestries of the "Hunt of the Unicorn" are worthy of a visit even if one saw nothing else in the museum. The tapestry titled, "The Unicorn is Found" has been read by many as a visual allegory of Christ's passion. It is extraordinarily moving interpreted through that lens. However, I have to say, the next tapestry in the series, "The Unicorn is Attacked," took my breath away when it is read Christologically. This tapestry portrays the gratuitous violence of the crucifixion as powerfully as the most graphic crucifix, placing the murderous spears in the hands of the twelve hunters (who, in the previous panel, may represent the apostles).  

Moving from room to room in the magnificent building that looks like a Romanesque or Gothic monastery transplanted from the French countryside to the cliffs above the Hudson River, I was most struck by the recurrence of one particular figure in paintings, statues, frescoes, tapestries and other works of art: the dragon.  

Dragons lurk everywhere in medieval art. Crushed beneath the heels of Christ or a saint, an abbot or a unidentified "wild man," dragons yield to the power of God. Rushing through the air pursued or pursuing a lion, one dragon displays the aerodynamic features of a jet in a fresco that looks like it was painted by an Art Deco enthusiastic, though the guidebook assures us that it is Spanish, ca.1200. Curled beneath the talons of an eagle, another dragon looks menacing, its tongue lapping at the air ready to spit fire, despite the bird's tenacious grip.  

Evil, we are told again and again in medieval art, is all around us. Dangerous though it may be to mortals like us, spreading its malignancies through pestilence, warfare and crime, evil is ultimately defeated already by Christ.  

One art object, in particular, almost teases and mocks evil, converting the good news into a message of divine comedy. A golden water vessel (known technically as an aquamanile) is crafted in the shape of a dragon. It sits on a table or shelf as harmless as a small terrier, its mouth agape as a spout, its tail curled into a handle. The fierce beast may once have breathed fire, but its fire is now quenched by the water in which you wash your hands for dinner.  

The interplay of the art, from a faith perspective, is almost overwhelming. Yes, the dragon causes great suffering, yes, its venom and fire inflict great pain, but the dragon's end is already assured.  

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