Thursday 19 July 2012

Is it a Dragon?

Is it a Dragon?
Here I am bundled up on an ever so chilly and rainy Scottish summer day, home from seeing the Pictish stone monuments at St Vigeans and Meigle.
I attended with a few students from Arcadia University, which incorporated a bit of early modern Scottish history along with the earlier Pictish monuments. While I find the inclusion of Pictish stone monuments in the presentation of Scottish national history interesting—as best described by Sían Jones and his work on the Hilton of Cadboll stone and the redesigning of the National Museum Scotland—what really struck me was the interpretive allure these stones held for the students.
           A group of fresh eyes is heaven sent when dealing with intricately carved stones with anthropomorphic designs riddled throughout. While there, one professor guiding the students said, and I paraphrase, “Now, we’ve all read the exact amount of material written by the Picts…none! So if you see something, please speak up.” While an over generalisation the message was still clear: interpret, speak up, you may have the next great insight, and all manner of encouraging things. The students responded instantly, set at ease in a way by this pedagogic ruse, and interpreted the monuments. Singing for my supper, I answered some of the questions the students had on the stones at Meigle. One group of intrepid students pointed to the back of Meigle No. 2 and asked if a figure was riding a dragon.
While pointing out the curvature of the back of the animal, and how the human figure was standing behind it, I was suddenly left thinking, but is it a dragon? While the RCAHMS happily states it dragoness, I was still sceptical. While writings by the Picts remains at most a few inscriptions on stones here and there, the Picts were literate and exposed to popular writings of the early medieval period. The importance of the Physiologus and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies to early medieval art is often simply stated as fact, but how can these sources really inform us?
Isidore instructs us that the dragon, besides his thirst for the cooling blood of elephants, kills through suffocation. While this dragon is biting the head of a bull figure on Meigle No. 2, could this be a way of depicting this tactic? Meanwhile, the bull or ox is described as possessing “extraordinary affection for their comrades” and “devoted fondness.” Could we be seeing a battle between aggression and loyalty? That’s not even trying to incorporate the centaur, Daniel and the Lions den, and riding scenes above.
           While it’s important to develop critical viewing skills, textual sources contemporary with the Picts do offer us further insights. However, locked in a speculative bubble, I quickly pointed to a carving of wolves pulling a human figure apart musing, “Look at this weird thing.” The students ran over and began exchanging strange looks at the violent sight. Luckily we left soon after and my art historic distraction saved me a little time and face. But still I’m left with the thought, was it a dragon and why was it biting that bull’s head? Perhaps I was onto something with my speculation, but that’s the fun of Pictish material. It’s there waiting to be interpreted.


Photo: Meigle No. 2 ©RCAHMS

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