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Why dragons keep getting bigger

Viewers who could see through the exceedingly murky final Game of Thrones season found a smorgasbord of smoldering fires, charred corpses, and abundant ashes evoking Chernobyl. Like Smaug of The Hobbit and many other cinematic dragons, the enormous Game of Thrones fire-breathers dwarf the human characters, particularly the diminutive Tyrion Lannister. By conjuring such prodigious dragons, the creators parted with centuries-old Catholic artistic traditions of portraying St George picking on petite dragons decidedly not his own size.

In some portrayals, St George and his horse play Goliath to Davidic dragons, who offer little evidence of fire-breathing capacity and may be trampled underfoot like insects. This scale foregrounds St George’s miraculous ability to slay the Devil, for whom the small dragon is a “convenient visual shorthand” rather than an actual dragon, says Larisa Grollemond, assistant manuscripts curator at the Getty in Los Angeles.

Bryan Keene, the Getty’s associate manuscripts curator, adds that the St George legend holds that the saint was not in fear of the dragon. “I wonder if artists depicted the dragon as rather small to show that he was not afraid,” he says. There are, he notes, terrifying medieval mammoth dragons, such as a multi-headed one in the 13th-century English Getty Apocalypse.

But Sam Riches, Lancaster University cultural historian and author of St George: A Saint for All, struggles to come up with more than a few St George depictions where the saint is portrayed near a fire-breathing dragon. She notes a saint-less fire-breather in the British Library’s collection, and adds that dragons were associated with pestilential rather than fiery breath in medieval Europe.

“It could be that the ‘rules’, such as there are, for dragons were quite different in the medieval mind, when a dragon was operating as a free agent rather than as a foil to a saint,” she says.

In Eastern Christianity and the Islamic world, dragons which heros or saints overcame didn’t have to express their power by being large, and could be tough to spot, says the French art historian Sara Kuehn, author of The Dragon in Medieval East Christian and Islamic Art. “Looks were of secondary importance,” she says. “In our contemporary world, dragons and the like are confined to the fantasy world – games, kids. They have to be large and frightening to impress the audience.”

A small, inconspicuous creature with the right symbolism would have been legible to medieval audiences. “In an Eastern context, the dragon often does not die; if it dies, it will be ‘resurrected’,” she says. “A saint’s or hero’s fight against the dragon can also be read as a fight against the self.”

Riches says that larger dragons are more frequent, although there are examples of “less than entirely heroic” St Georges battling “something the size of a dog”. By shrinking dragons, artists and patrons may have been making a larger point. “The viewer is actually being told that dangerous things can be overcome through the force of will and strength of faith,” she says.

Menachem Wecker is a journalist based in Washington, DC