The Dragon Fighter: The Influence of Zoroastrian Ideas on Judaeo-Christian and Islamic Iconography

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Images of dragon-slaying by Eastern Christian warrior saints allegorise the overthrow of evil forces, a topos that appears first on the eastern confines of the Byzantine Empire in Transcaucasia. Representations of a triumphal rider trampling or slaying a fallen enemy are frequent in antiquity but acquire a moral significance only under the emperor Constantine in the early fourth century – a century later than analogous imagery on the investiture relief of Ardashīr I (r. 224–241) at Naqsh-i Rustam. Close parallels in iconography between the Iranian and the Judaeo-Christian traditions expressing the fundamental juxtaposition between victor and vanquished, and the latter often characterised by ophidian features, may in large part be due to the influence of Iranian dualistic notions, and specifically Zoroastrian eschatological thought systems. Conclusive evidence points to the fact that the iconographic semantics of the medieval Western Asian equestrian dragon-fighter in its heroic as well as saintly incarnation owe much to ancient prototypes that germinated in the syncretistic melting pot of the great Near Eastern religions. The visual representation of a fighter doing battle with a serpent or dragon employs a traditional and enduring iconographical formula of some antiquity and wide diffusion throughout the Near Eastern world. It is part of a stock of popular imagery that survived into medieval times. The fighter takes aim at an ophidian creature using a variety of weapons while the creature is shown either as a lively upright being imbued with fighting spirit, or, more commonly, in the guise of a vanquished being lying on its back beneath the horse's feet with gaping upturned jaws. The idea of connecting the cult and iconography of the Eastern Christian warrior saints with a serpent-dragon can be traced to at least the early seventh century. In the Christian church the dragon motif developed in the eastern confines of Byzantium, where the so-called holy rider vanquishing a dragon was a well-established literary topos and was represented in early wall painting. Depictions are found on portable items, ranging from magical amulets to luxury objects, as well as on sacred architecture, in particular churches and funerary settings. The motif fell on particularly fertile ground in the southern Caucasus region which was part of the pan-Iranian religio-cultural realm and was steeped in its artistic conventions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)59-92
Number of pages33
JournalARAM Periodical
Issue number1 & 2
Publication statusPublished - 2014

Austrian Fields of Science 2012

  • 603909 Religious studies
  • 604019 Art history
  • 603908 History of religion
  • 603110 Metaphysics

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