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Monday 2 December 2013

St George And The Small Plump Crocodile

Prague is a nice enough place, I suppose, in bright sunshine. But how much more awesome would that terrifying Gothic architecture be in, say, fog ? Or snow ? Or at night ? Or on a snowy foggy night... well, maybe not that last one. I imagine most places look extremely similar on a snowy foggy night, to wit, the inside of a ping-pong ball.

Look, it's Prague ! Or maybe it's Afghanistan... 
Still, night time is not a quantity in short supply, especially in winter. And yes, the ornate towers and fa├žades which comprise Prague are indeed most intimidating come the hours of darkness. Snow has yet to materialise this winter, but no doubt it will be worth the wait. Occasional frost has given a glimpse of the future.

Fog is a little more haphazard. At the Astronomical Institute, it's not infrequent (as seen above). Once suitably adjusted to something resembling a daily routine, I waited for the first foggy weekend and, with more enthusiasm than sense, headed into central Prague hoping to see everything I'd seen before but with more fog in the way. This objective was not really achieved. The fog turned out to be more like very low cloud, with the city center largely unobscured. Of course, if my laptop had been working I'd have been able to check a webcam first...

Still, the trip was not without merit. At 9am on a Sunday, the normally visible-from-space tourist route is totally empty. And finally I got to see the Astronomical Clock do its hourly thing. Then I wandered up to Prague Castle, where the cloud was low enough to make a difference.

Prague, it must be said, does not do everything right. One of the biggest mistakes I've spotted is the depiction of St George's battle with the dragon. This is a reoccurring motif around the Castle, and while it's invariably very well carved, there's something a bit... off about the proportions.

On his royal face there is no note how dreadfully small a dragon his horse
has almost stepped on, 
Shakespeare would probably say.
Just what exactly was this slightly plump, immature crocodile doing to the villagers that they felt the need to call in a hero ? Stealing their shoes ? Biting their ankles ? Digging holes in the garden, perhaps ? Quite why they felt the need to sacrifice virgins to it, I don't know. More importantly, how ? How do you sacrifice a grown woman to small, slightly plump crocodile that's so inoffensive you could be forgiven for accidentally tripping over it ?

That's a swamp dragon if ever I saw one. Even if it could breathe
 fire it would be about as dangerous as a malfunctioning toaster.
Clearly the Czech version of this legend is rather different to that elsewhere in Europe. Though somehow the tale of "St George and the Big Lizard That Kept Stealing People's Socks" lacks a certain heroic romanticism. Can't imagine why.

Another explanation is that St George was actually one hundred and fifty feet tall, which would then make the dragon a reasonably threatening size to ordinary villagers. One suspects that this little nugget would probably have been mentioned more prominently in the story. All in all, I was more impressed with the "George and Dragon" British pub, because it has cider.

Later I wandered back to Vysherad, where, as at Prague Castle, the cloud was low enough to make a difference. Gone were the sweeping views of the river, replaced by a cathedral and graveyard that were clearly designed by a prophet with a singularly unique vision. One that told him that, a thousand years hence, a show called Dr Who would feature relentlessly frightening stone statues called the weeping angels. Vysherad, in one very specific sense, is beyond perfection - it is the Platonic ideal of a weeping angels episode location.

Not all of the graveyard features exquisite Gothic statues and tombstones, however. When I saw this mosaic of a very nonchalant Jesus, one caption instantly sprang to mind :

Finally there were these statues. I can only assume the artist wanted to show what the weeping angels get up to in their off-hours. Apparently they thought this involved taking Jesus to a dance club, for some reason.

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