In honor of the Year of the Dragon, The Drexel Collection presents “The Iconography of the Dragon: East and West” exhibit, located in the Rincliffe Gallery on the third floor of the Main Building April 2 through May 11. The E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation funded the exhibition.
The exhibition displays works ranging from the 16th to the 19th centuries that originate from countries including China, Korea, Italy and France. Each piece of art displays a different region’s interpretation and symbolic use of the majestic dragon. The pieces are loaned by various museums, including the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum and several other notable museums.
The exhibit was divided into two categories: artwork from the East and artwork from the West. The regions have opposing symbolic interpretations and representations of the dragon. Eastern interpretations were derived from folklore while Western interpretations of the dragon were derived from the Bible.
“Since the logo for Drexel University is the dragon, it came to us a few years ago, actually. ‘Why don’t we have an exhibition of dragons?’ And then we realized that dragons of the East were different than dragons of the West,” Jacqueline DeGroff, curator of The Drexel Collection, said. This realization led to further research.
According to DeGroff, the dragon of the East was represented as kind and compassionate. Additionally, the Eastern dragon was often depicted as heroic and serpentlike.
“The dragon in Asian art represents the emperor himself. The emperor believed that he was a descendent of the dragon,” DeGroff explained.
Eastern countries would often create artwork that displayed the dragon reaching for a pearl, which symbolized the sun, the moon or everlasting life. In China, dragons made in honor of the emperor were depicted with five claws. Dragon depictions in artwork that were meant for the emperor’s family or higher officials had four claws, and works meant for the common people had three claws.
A plate titled “Iron Red Porcelain Dish with Five-toed Dragon with Sacred Pearl” depicts a dragon with five claws reaching for a flaming pearl. This means the plate was meant for an emperor. The plate originates from China and is loaned from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The piece is dated between 1522 and 1566.
According to DeGroff, flames protruding from a pearl could mean that the pearl represents the sun. Oftentimes the dragon was thought to get as close to the sun as possible in order to shine bright and capture everlasting life.
Another notable piece of art from the East is titled “Cast Bronze Gong” from Brunei, Borneo. This piece, on loan from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, was used to wake the dragon in the people’s time of need, usually when there was a drought or flood. The dragon was deaf but would respond to vibrations, DeGroff said.
The dragon was considered to be a weather lord, and resided in the sea, river or sky. According to DeGroff, the dragon was believed to stop floods and end droughts.
This intricately designed bronze gong displays three serpentlike dragons surrounded by pearls and lotus flowers.
“The lotus flower at night closes up and then retreats into the water. In the morning it comes up again and then opens, which is similar to what the Asian dragon does as well,” DeGroff said.
A bell called “Bronze Garden Dragon Bell” from China was also used to awaken the dragon in a time of need. The Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art loaned this enormous and majestic bell.
The Western region of the world had a very different interpretation of the dragon. DeGroff explained that the Western dragon is depicted as cruel and aggressive and is often associated with the devil.
“Even though the serpent isn’t the dragon, over the years the serpent and the dragon became interrelated, and eventually when [people] referred to the devil, the image would be a dragon,” DeGroff said.
The dragon was depicted with wings and feet and was often shown eating human beings. For example, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum is a photograph of a copper sculpture from Northern Germany titled “Aquamanile in the Form of a Dragon,” in which a dragon is eating a monk.
The exhibit includes additional photographs with religious connotations that represent the dragon as an aggressor. One is of a sculpture titled “St. Margaret of Antioch,” which originates from Toulouse, France, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum. The sculpture depicts St. Margaret emerging from a dragon who, according to DeGroff, had previously eaten the saint.
Drexel’s own Mario the Dragon, designed by Eric Berg and located on 33rd and Market streets, is thought to be similar to the Western dragon because of its wings and ferocious demeanor, DeGroff said.
DeGroff will host a lecture and reception April 25 in the Anthony J. Drexel Picture Gallery at 6 p.m., where she will further explore the Eastern and Western interpretations of the dragon. Admission is free and open to the public.