Mystery surrounds the exact date that renowned fresco painter Antonio di Puccio Pisano, also known as Pisanello, painted “St George and the Princess of Trebizond,” widely held to be the most astounding exemplar of the International Gothic style, in the Pellegrini chapel of Santa Anastasia church, in Verona.
Mystery also surrounds the reasons why the painter felt compelled to translate the location of the legend of Saint George, which traditionally takes place variously in either Silene, Libya or Lydda in Palestine, to Trebizond, known to Greeks as Trapezounta, at that time, capital city of the Empire of Trebizond, in Pontus, fated to be the last outpost of eastern Christendom to fall to the Ottomans.
Pisanello’s badly damaged fresco inhabits the crown and spandrels of the arch at the entrance to the Pellegrini chapel. Only the right side is legible; the fresco in the left-side spandrel has deteriorated to the extent where only a barely discernible scene of the dragon’s lair and a scattering of the bones of its victims, interspersed with grotesque scavenging beasts is apparent.
To the right, Pisanello depicts a curly, golden haired, but distinctly uncomfortable and apprehensive Saint George, in the process of mounting his horse, in order to do battle with the dread dragon that would devour the princess of the city. The damsel in distress stands to the side, assuming what at the outset, appears to be a regal stance. Her head is held high and her dress is splendid.
Nonetheless, she stares intently at her would be saviour, in voiceless supplication. He is her last hope.
The upper part of the fresco features a high cliff with an idealized depiction of Trebizond, replete with intricate architectural edifices, exotic, orientalizing towers, (an enduring stereotype that would later be immortalised in Rose Macaulay’s novel “The Towers of Trebizond”), thrusting church spires and a castle. The city, with its Gothic, ornate, lacelike stonework, assumes a fantastical, almost surrealistic air. It also presents a paradox. For all of its perpendicularity, it appears to be in the process of sinking down into the earth. The atmosphere is pregnant with a sense of anticipation. A doom seems to have fallen upon the city, as exemplified by the presence of some macabre and grotesque elements: outside the city walls are two hanged men, one with his hose fallen down around his legs. Doubt pervades the scene and causes almost a sense of asphyxiation. Will Saint George save Trebizond from catastrophe? And why has Pisanello’s dragon emigrated from Libya or Palestine to menace the capital of Pontus, anyway?
Pisanello provides a clue in the two grotesque faces he portrays among those in the crowd, seeing Saint George off. They appear to have been inspired by the descriptions of Ottoman Turks who were closing in on Constantinople at the time of painting. Clearly, Pisanello’s Princess of Trebizond is intended as a powerful metaphor for events transpiring at the time.
Another clue is provided by the procession of curious people, depicted in smaller scale, who have gathered near the place where Saint George’s boat is moored, ready to set sail. The style of the figures’ hats is reminiscent of contemporary portrayals of the fashions of the Byzantine Emperor’s delegation to the Council of Florence-Ferrara between 1444-1446. The rendering of the horses, in their resplendent livery, with their pioneering perspectival foreshortening, echo depictions of Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos’ equine procession at the Council of Constance or Benozzo Gozzoli’s depiction of Emperor John VIII Palaiologos as Magus in “The Adoration of the Magi.”
The aforementioned Emperors travelled to Italy to elicit the assistance of the West against the unstoppable and inevitable Ottoman onslaught. The price they were asked to pay for it was high; no less than the subjugation of the Eastern Church to the Papacy. Just before his death, Pisanello would have found out that despite the Byzantines’ pleas and their ultimate assent to the union of their Church with Rome, there was to be no salvation to be had from the West. His painting prefigures this.
Death and destruction, as signified by the hanged men, is coming. The princess of Trebizond, is in actual fact, a personification of Pontus, the last Christian kingdom of Anatolia, or indeed, of Eastern Christianity itself. She is a fifteenth century woman, albeit a well-coiffed one, in good standing, but rank and riches notwithstanding, by virtue of her very nature, perilously vulnerable. Significantly, Saint George is positioned to the west of her, and it is in that west that she is depositing all her hopes of salvation. Tellingly however, Saint George, the westerner, refuses to meet her gaze and instead looks towards the sea and his means of escape. His white horse, symbolic of victory, conquest, goodness and invincibility, is turned away from her. Although he is caparisoned in the armour of a knight, he appears to be transgressing every law of Chivalry that he has sworn to uphold.
In the foreground of the painting, Pisanello positions a dog, a traditional symbol of openness and fidelity. According to the beliefs of the times, the dog was an arbiter of guilt or innocence, as dogs were thought to possess the power to look into a person’s soul and were often included in courtroom proceedings. If a dog looked intently or growled at the accused, the person was judged guilty. Here, the dog does not look at Saint George at all, only at the sea. It can tell us nothing.
Behind the Pontian princess, a ram lies prostrate. This is a traditional symbol of sacrifice. It is also a direct reference to the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament, where it is written: “Then I lifted up mine eyes, and saw, and, behold, there stood before the river a ram which had two horns… I saw the ram pushing westward, and northward, and southward; so that no beasts might stand before him, neither was there any that could deliver out of his hand; but he did according to his will, and became great.” Pisanello’s ram is thus suggestive of the Ottoman juggernaut, pushing ever westwards, to envelop Trebizond, Byzantium and the beyond. He suggests that the West will, out of necessity or cowardice, sacrifice Trebizond and all that it represents, for its own security.
Unlike the dog and the ram, Pisanello positions the third of his animals, the golden boar, facing Saint George’s feet. A perennial emblem of material desires, excess and self-indulgence, Pisanello enlists porcine tropology for self-evident accusatory purposes.
Rather than being a tableaux of rescue and salvation, Pisanello’s “St George and the Princess of Trebizond,” is thus actually a tableaux of betrayal and abandonment. Pisanello’s Saint George is not setting sail to do battle with the monster that is so inimical to the safety and survival of the city of Trebizond. Instead, he is abandoning it and its inhabitants to their fate (to be a heap of bones, fodder for scavenging wild beasts), as he returns home safely to the West. In his remarkable, emotive and heavily laden with types and symbols that would have been easily comprehensible and able to be decoded by his contemporaries composition, Pisanello castigates the self-interested foreign policy of his contemporary rulers, making an impassioned humanitarian plea for succour and sanctuary for the weak and vulnerable in a time of Apocalypse.
Whether the subjects of his advocacy are the Pontians, the Byzantines or any other vulnerable and afflicted group abandoned by the powerful who play lip service to principles demand that they offer them protection in times of perdition, Pisanello’s striking “St George and the Princess of Trebizond,” is as immediate and as relevant to the contemporary zeitgeist as the day it was painted. As a commentary and a clarion call in support of a vanishing eastern Greek-speaking world, and against the bankruptcy of ideological tropes and trappings of civilisation, it surely warrants further scrutiny and close viewing by the broader Grecophonic discourse.