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House of the Dragon - A History of the Dragon in Visual Art

With HBO's first Game of Thrones prequel set to air towards the end of the month, we find ourselves strapping in for more fantastical drama and (most importantly) more dragons.

The prequel stretches back 200 years before the events of the original TV series, centring on the dynasty of Dragonlords that controlled the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. But like many established fantasy dramas, there are plenty of examples of real-life inspirations that inform the events that unfold in George R.R. Martin's expansive world. One of the key examples of this comes in the form of the medieval equivalent of a nuclear weapon. Armed with sheer size, the ability to fly, dense defensive scales, enormous teeth and a casually devastating propensity to obliterate enemies with fire, dragons are the living war machines of the GOT universe.

Among the numerous creatures in Game of Thrones, dragons and wyverns may be the most familiar. Throughout history, dragons of various shapes, forms and demeanours have featured in the folkloric art of countless cultures. From Ancient Mesopotamia to Japan, Lord of the Rings to Pokémon, the visual history of dragons and wyverns in art reflects not only our worst fears but also our wildest imaginings.

Dragon vs Wyvern


Dragons and wyverns are both legendary folkloric creatures that have appeared in many different cultures. The word dragon entered the English language in the early 13th century from Old French dragon, which in turn comes from Latin: draconem meaning huge serpent from Ancient Greek drákōn meaning serpent or giant seafish. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word wyvern is a development of Middle English wyver, from Anglo-French wivre which originates from Latin vīpera, meaning viper, adder, or asp.

Since the sixteenth century, in English, Scottish, and Irish heraldry, the distinction drawn between dragons and Wyverns has been that a wyvern has two legs, whereas a dragon has four. The forelimbs of a wyvern are absent, replaced instead by bat-like wings with talons to balance with while walking. By this rule, Daenerys's trio - Rhaegal, Viserion and Drogon - may not be dragons at all, using wyvern-like wings to both fly and locomote across terrain. However, author George R.R. Martin was clearly aware of the difference between the two creatures when he began populating Westeros with fearsome draconic creatures, saying in his blog:

According to the rules of heraldry, dragons have four legs and wyverns two, yes...But have you ever seen a heraldic ‘seahorse?’ Heralds didn’t know crap about biology. Now, there are no actual dragons, to be sure. But there are bats, and there are birds, and once upon a time there were pterodactyls. Those are the models to use when designing a dragon. No beast in nature has four legs and wings.

The dragons of Game of Thrones also breathe fire, an attribute that is generally linked to dragons rather than wyverns. Plus, the title Mother of Dragons bestowed on Daenerys Targaryen in season 2 sounds much more impressive than the rather technical-sounding Mother of Wyverns. So dragons it is.

What are Dragons?


Dragons are legendary creatures of fantasy and myth. Although the manifestation of dragons in visual art varies significantly, many iterations of these fantastical creatures possess several key characteristics. Highly intelligent and fearsome, dragons are sometimes capable of breathing fire, bestowing good fortune or wreaking havoc depending on the folklore. Many dragons we know today differ quite significantly from their historic predecessors. For example, early dragons were likely inspired by snakes or other reptiles and were only later paired with bat-like wings or gravity-defying abilities.

Dragons Across Art History


Like many characters of storytelling, the dragon itself has undertaken an evolution of sorts, first conceived as a giant snake rather than a winged, long-necked biped or quadruped. For example, in Egyptian mythology, the giant serpentine creature Apep dwelled in the Egyptian Underworld waiting to battle the sun god Ra as he descended into the underworld at sunset each evening. According to the Amduat, the oldest extant Book of the Afterlife, a serpent with five heads was said to protectively coil around the corpse of Ra.

In the ancient Near East, Sumerian poets likened legendary kings to Ušumgallu, one of the three-horned snakes in Akkadian mythology, along with the Bašmu and Mušmaḫḫū. A mythological hybrid, mušḫuššu had hind legs resembling the talons of an eagle, lion-like forelimbs, an elongated neck and tail, the torso of a fish, a horned head and a forked tongue. The mušḫuššu most famously appears on the reconstructed Ishtar Gate, the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon dating to the sixth century BCE.

Mušḫuššu on the Ishtar Gate | Wikimedia commons
Mušḫuššu on the Ishtar Gate | Wikimedia commons

Draconic creatures also appear in ancient Mesopotamian art and literature. According to Hittite mythology, Illuyanka was a serpentine dragon slain by Teshub, the god of the sky and storms. The story is known from Hittite cuneiform tablets found at Çorum-Boğazköy, the former Hittite capital Hattusa.

Aži Dahāka is a demonic serpentine figure in the Avesta, the earliest religious text of Zoroastrianism. In the Hebrew Bible, the leviathan is a draconic sea serpent referenced in Psalms, the Book of Job, the Book of Isaiah and the Book of Amoss. Depending on certain translations, the leviathan may also be referenced in the Book of Jonah. The Leviathan often embodies chaos, threatening to devour the damned. In the Old Testament, Leviathan appears as a primordial multi-headed sea serpent killed by God and presented as food to the Hebrews. Both the name and the mythological figure of the Leviathan are derivative of the Ugaritic sea monster Lôtān, one of the servants of the sea god Yam defeated by Hadad in the Ba'al Cycle. In the Rigveda, the oldest of the four Vedas, the Vedic god of storms battles Vṛtra, a giant serpent who embodies drought.

In Ancient Greek mythology, the Greek word usually translated as dragon could also mean snake but usually points to a giant serpent that wields supernatural power. In the seventh century BCE poem Theogony, the Boeotian poet Hesiod writes that Zeus battles Typhon, a beast with one hundred serpent heads that breathed fire and made a broad spectrum of animalistic ululations.

Other Ancient Greek characterizations of fearsome dragon/snake-like creatures include a pair of winged serpents that drew the flying chariot of the mythological witch Medea and the Lernaean Hydra, a dragon-like water serpent with a venomous breath, blood and fangs, slain by Hercules as the second of his Twelve Labours.

Medea in a Chariot drawn by two dragon-like creatures
Medea in a Chariot drawn by two dragon-like creatures | Wikimedia Commons

The legendary Chinese dragon, a celebrated symbol of China, can be traced back thousands of years. The Hongshan culture, a neolithic culture in the West Liao river basin in northeast China is known for its jade carvings. The embryonic pig dragon - zoomorphic forms with a pig head and a serpentine body - were often made as grave goods. Always curved, these objects may have led to the pictographic representation of the Chinese character signifying the dragon.

Wang Fu, a Chinese scholar in the Eastern Han Dynasty recorded that dragons had numerous distinct anatomical resemblances:

The people paint the dragon's shape with a horse's head and a snake's to the nine resemblances, they are the following: his antlers resemble those of a stag, his head that of a camel, his eyes those of a demon, his neck that of a snake, his belly that of a clam, his scales those of a carp, his claws those of an eagle, his soles those of a tiger, his ears those of a cow

Chinese dragons, while often benevolent, can also become aggressive or chaotic. As shapeshifters capable of taking on human form, dragons relayed information from earth to the heavens. In a Chinese bestiary written between the 4th and 1st century BCE, the dragon manifested as a nature deity or God of Thunder, drumming its belly to generate thunderous booms. From there, various dragons were assigned the control of rainstorms, winds, floods, hail, tornadoes and all bodies of water. Chinese dragons were rarely depicted with wings and simply glided through the air on their unseen momentum.

Over time, individual incarnations of Chinese dragons developed more particular skills, natures and roles. The Dragon King was introduced with the arrival of Buddhism in China and was adopted as a symbol of royalty and enlightenment. Emperors in China were said to be descendants of dragons and wore robes emblazoned with the sign of the Dragon King as a symbol of supreme power.

Nine Dragons is a famous handscroll painting by Chinese artist Chen Rong from 1244 CE, depicting the amorphous apparitions of the nine sons of the Dragon King soaring amidst a number of elemental landscapes. The painting alludes to the forces of nature within Taoist philosophy. The fifth creature in the zodiac, dragons are also featured heavily in zodiacal art.

When Buddhism was imported to Japan from China in the 7th century, dragons were also incorporated into Shintoism. In Japanese folklore, Yamata no Orochi was a huge snake that extended over eight valleys and hills with glowing cherry-like eyes and a constantly inflamed belly covered in blood and moss. Yamata no Orochi legends are featured within two ancient texts about Japanese mythology and history - the 712 AD Kojiki, believed to be the oldest extant literary work in Japan and the Nihon Shoki, the second-oldest book of classical Japanese history.

The legendary sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, which was said to have come from the tail of Yamata no Orochi became one of the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan. However, the status of these legendary treasures is unknown. When these items are not being used for their ceremonial purpose, their supposed locations are kept off limits to the public. There are also no known photographs or drawings of the Imperial Regalia due to their status as protected artifacts.

Amalgamating old myths with the manifestations of draconic creatures, Japanese dragons are usually water deities associated with rainfall and bodies of water. Found in a compendium of esoteric Buddhist images, an Inviting Rain Mandala from the 12th century was likely used in rites to end drought. Much later, Kuniyoshi Utagawa conveyed a watery stampede of weapon-wielding sea creatures, a scene from the popular legend of Princess Tamatori and her fatal journey to recover a sacred jewel lost in a shipwreck guarded by dragons.

Able to fly without the aid of wings, Japanese dragons were also depicted in the air or levitating just above terrain. Katsushika Hokusai's Picture Book of Chinese and Japanese Warriors features numerous examples of these dragons as does his volume titled Mount Fuji and the Ascending Dragon (1834–35).

In the Old Norse poem Grímnismál in the Poetic Edda, the dragon Níðhöggr is described as gnawing away on the roots of Yggdrasil, the world tree. Towards the end of the Old English epic poem Beowulf, a slave steals a cup from the hoard of a sleeping dragon, causing the dragon to wake up and go on a rampage of destruction across the land. In the Old Norse Völsunga saga, the hero Sigurd catches and kills the dragon Fafnir by digging a pit between the cave where he lived and the spring where he drinks his water.

The modern, westernised image of the dragon in visual art was developed in western Europe during the Middle Ages. The merging of draconic figures from Graeco-Roman literature and Near Eastern European depictions with western European folk traditions resulted in a figure that appeared frequently between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. Welsh monk Geoffrey of Monmouth recounted a legend in the Historia Regum Britanniae in which child-prophet Merlin declares a white dragon will battle and defeat a red dragon - symbolizing England's conquest of Wales. However, Merlin added that the red dragon would eventually return and defeat its white counterpart. The story was popular, proving to be a common theme in numerous paintings by medieval artists.

The oldest realized image of a western dragon appears in an illustration from the medieval manuscript MS Harley 3244, which was made around 1260 AD. Here, the dragon bears two sets of three wings each and boasts a particularly long tail, but it is a clear rendering of the dragons many are familiar with today. Imagined as gluttonous, powerful and crafty, dragons from this period were (and often still are) relegated to caves or lairs. They were also associated with Satan, due to the use of the phrase dragon in the Book of Revelations. A legend dating back to the thirteenth century records the virgin martyr Saint Margaret of Antioch banishing the devil in the form of a draconic beast with the gesture of the cross. In other accounts, St Margaret is eaten whole by the dragon, but bursts from its stomach unharmed after making the same sign of the cross.

Saint Margaret of Antioch ca.1475 | Dragon in MS Harley |  The Met / Wikimedia Commons
Saint Margaret of Antioch ca.1475 | Dragon in MS Harley | The Met | Wikimedia Commons

A famous sixth-century legend involving Saint George and a dragon was referenced as early as the sixth century, though a full account emerged later from an eleventh-century Georgian text. The story goes that a ravenous dragon forced the people of Silene in Libya to offer their own children for the dragon to eat. When a princess was chained to a rock for the dragon, Saint George subdued the beast and led it to the town centre, promising to kill it if the townspeople converted to Christianity. They did and the dragon was killed.

The narrative of Saint George slaying the dragon has pre-Christian origins (Jason and Medea, Perseus and Andromeda, Typhon) and was attributed to various saints' lives prior to its attribution to St. George specifically. The legend and iconography spread rapidly through the Byzantine cultural sphere in the 12th century. It reached Western Christian tradition still in the 12th century, via the crusades. The motif of Saint George as a knight on horseback slaying the dragon first appears in western art in the second half of the 13th century.

Dragon motifs are prominent in medieval heraldry. Initially, heraldic dragons had a varying number of legs. However, by the late Middle Ages, the number of legs on a draconic beast defined it as either a dragon (four legs) or a wyvern (two legs). In myths, wyverns were envious, vicious and caused pestilence. In heraldry, their demise marks the defeat of Satan and associated evils.

Late medieval heraldry also identified a third draconic creature known as the cockatrice, said to be born when a serpent hatches an egg that has been laid on a dunghill by a rooster. With a lethal breath and fatal gaze, the cockatrice is deadly to any living creature except for the weasel. The cockatrice was mentioned four times in the King James translation of the Old Testament in the Bible and appears in numerous artistic renderings as an agressive, semi-draconic chimera.

In the legends of Russia and Ukraine, a Zmei Gorynich is a multiple-headed dragon or serpent, or a human-like character with dragon-like traits. Zmei Gorynych appears as a formidable adversary to the heroes of numerous legends. Images depicting St George and the Dragon were also prominent in Russian art, featuring on the Moscow coat of arms.

Dragons in the Renaissance were also generally depicted in line with the legend of St George and the Dragon. Perhaps one of the most famous of these renderings is by Paul Uccello, a Florentine painter and mathematician who was notable for his pioneering artistic work on rendering visual perspective. Painted around 1470, the eye in the gathering storm aligns with the trajectory of Saint George's spear, a possible allusion to holy intervention. Other renderings of the story include artworks by Vittore Carpaccio, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Raphael and later the Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens.

Modern Dragons


From the renaissance to modern art, dragons continued to hold influence as a symbol of myth and legend. For example, artists, designers and architects of the art nouveau movement frequently incorporated draconic motifs into architecture and furniture.

In modern storytelling, dragons and draconic motifs are especially common within fantasy literature. Perhaps one of the most iconic dragons is Smaug from Tolkien's novel The Hobbit, but other well-known works depict dragons including Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle, Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern and Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle. The presence of dragons in art is both dramatic and a visual shorthand hearkening back to ancient tradition. The flying dragon can speed up a plot, granting riders the ability to travel at a much faster pace within a realm that lacks contemporary technology. Traditional associations of longevity and draconic wisdom also build a greater historic dimension around a plot.

The use of dragons in both literary and artistic contexts has inspired countless modern and contemporary renderings of draconic creatures, which often incorporate humans either fighting or befriending dragon kind. As the titles suggest, both Woman and Dragon, an etching by Pablo Picasso and St. George and the Dragon by Wassily Kandinsky visit draconic art through an avant-garde perspective, juxtaposing history with modernity.

Dragons are rendered in a vast variety of artistic formats with numerous interpretations. The United Nations Security Council mural is an oil painting by Norwegian artist Per Krohg exhibited at the United Nations in New York City since August 1952. The 16' x 26' foot-long canvas features a central image of a rising phoenix surrounded by images of war and disharmony. In the bottom field, a brown and red coiled dragon holds a sword in its mouth as it attempts to dislodge the blade from its body.

Dragon is a wood engraving print created by Dutch artist M. C. Escher in April 1952, depicting a folded paper dragon perched on a crop of pointed crystals, a conflict between two-dimensional and three-dimensional space. The dragon in the engraving grips its own tail in its jaws in the manner of Uroboros, an ancient symbol of infinitude in line with Escher's own illusionistic approach. Theodor Severin Kittelsen, a neo-romantic Norwegian artist, became one of the most celebrated artists in Norway for his nature paintings, as well as for his illustrations of fairy tales and legends, including the depiction of dragons.

Today, dragons are viewed as an artistic device that alludes to the historic imaginings of our collective hopes and fears. Connecting or expanding on our universal scope of imagination, post-modern artists used the writings of Tolkien and others as inspiration. When the game Dungeons and Dragons was introduced in 1976, it quickly garnered a reputation as a fantastical and immersive world with a loyal fanbase. Artists began depicting the dragon as illustrated in art, novels, games and television, bolstering a draconic renaissance.

There are countless examples of dragons in contemporary forms within galleries, books, designs, homes, public sites, digital media and on the body itself. In ancient China, commoners were banned from owning dragon artworks or items that carry dragon images. Today, many traditional or modern dragon designs are worn on the body in the form of tattoos or clothing. Dragon motifs are still carved, moulded, painted or drawn as a sign of luck, or to evoke fantastical realms. The motif of St. George and the Dragon remains alive as well, with artists like Raúl de Nieves painting the epic tale in a contemporary mode, and Ai Weiwei creating Zodiac Dragon with Lego bricks. In interactive digital media, dragons feature in fantasy artworks, coming to life in video games and 3D printing.

From saints to Skyrim, the dragon has entered the global consciousness in ways that reflect medieval levels of popularity. Volatile, intelligent and majestic, dragons in art represent the wildness of our own imaginings with art that cements the fantastical creature in history.



An Instinct for Dragons - David E. Jones

The Dragon in China and Japan - Marinus Willem de Visser

Nine Dragons - Peter Zhang on

Basic Heraldry - Stephen Friar


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