To celebrate our 250th birthday this year, we’re highlighting 250 beautiful, odd and inspiring objects from the RA Collection across 25 themes. In this edition, we’re looking at the fearsome mythical beasts lurking in the shadows of our archives, from the colossal serpents of Norse legend to hideous hydras from Greek myth.
The Midgard Serpent, so large it can encircle the world, rises from the surface of a raging sea to seize the ox’s head being used as bait by the Norse god, Thor. This dramatic painting takes its subject from the Icelandic 'Edda' sagas. They became popular in Britain after their 1770 publication in 'Northern Antiquities', the first comprehensive English translation of Norse myths and legends.
Another serpent is on the attack in this monoprint by contemporary Royal Academician Chris Orr, part of his series of works responding to the life and work of William Blake. It shows a scene taken from Dante’s 'Divine Comedy', in which the thief Agnolo Brunelleschi is condemned to be consumed by a six-foot snake for all eternity.
In Greek mythology, sirens were part-woman, part-bird creatures whose beautiful singing lured sailors to their doom on treacherous rocks. This grinning monster with the head of a monkey and two serpents for legs, comically unlike most depictions of sirens, is one of many fabulous creatures in an album of drawings by William Daniell and George Dance.
This dynamic sculpture shows the Trojan priest Laocöon and his two sons struggling with two serpents overpowering them. According to mythology, the serpents were sent by Greek gods Poseidon and Athena, who were infuriated when Laocöon warned his fellow Trojans against taking in the wooden horse left outside the city walls by the Greeks.
In the French story Princess Belle-Etoile, Prince Cheri outwits the dragon guarding a tree of singing apples by frightening it with its own reflection. This particular depiction by Walter Crane, an early champion of illustration, is taken from an 1884 collection of fairytales entitled 'Aladdin’s Picture Book'.
Homer’s 'Odyssey' tells of two female monsters named Scylla and Charybdis, who guard both sides of a narrow channel of water, leaving just one tiny gap which Odysseus is able to sneak through. This drawing was made by John Flaxman in preparation for a series of engravings illustrating the 'Odyssey', also in the RA Collection.
In Norse mythology, the dwarf prince Fafnir is turned into a dragon by a cursed ring. He appears as Fafner, originally a giant, in Richard Wagner’s opera cycle 'The Ring of the Nibelung', which was the inspiration for this print by current President of the Royal Academy, Christopher Le Brun.
A combination of lion and eagle, the griffin was seen as a symbol of strength and power and so often depicted protecting precious possessions. In this cast, reproducing part of the Forum of Trajan in Rome, a griffin guards a valuable vase and candelabra.
This etching shows the venerated Saint George, patron saint of England (and Romania and Malta, to name just a few), slaying the dastardly dragon. Its composition may have been influenced by Raphael’s 'Expulsion of Heliodorus' in the Vatican palace, which was painted around the same time the print was made.
The hydra is a terrifying many-headed beast – cut off one of its heads, and two more grow back in its place. Hercules was sent to slay the hydra of Lernaea as one of the twelve labours he carried out as penance for killing his wife and children. This painting, by founding Royal Academician George Michael Moser, is a copy in reverse of a painting by Guido Reni, now in the Louvre.