BARCELONA — Antoni Gaudí is the most famous Catalan artist. The homes, gardens, and basilica he designed remain the city’s most popular tourist attractions. And an intriguing pattern emerges after visiting several sites — the dragon keeps popping up as a recurring motif. Not every tourist knows the city’s patron saint is St. George, who famously vanquished a dragon. Even fewer know how the city’s mythic founder Guifré el Pilós (also known as Wilfred the Hairy) similarly slayed a dragon in defense of the Catalan people. The dragon is a potent and familiar emblem from Barcelona’s past. And in Gaudí’s dragons throughout the city, we discover special winks to his audience about how to slay the dragons of modern times.
The image above is the Dragon Gate guarding the estate of Eusebi Güell in the Pedralbes neighborhood of Barcelona. The dragon on this gate was originally polychromatic with red jaws and glass eye sockets. But it still stands impressively with its bare metallic hues, dynamic shapes, and lines.
One big surprise about this gate is that it cleverly repurposes cheap mass-produced materials. The dragon’s long, spiral tail is a prefabricated spring. Its wings are mere wire mesh. From humble sheet metal, Gaudí created the scales covering the legs and body. The head with its distinctive jaws, fangs, eyes, and snouts are simple sheet metal as well. It may be trite to repeat the cliché that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but in this case it’s warranted. Gaudí had a talent for turning straw into gold, taking mass-produced metal and transforming it into a dragon.
Gaudí penned many treatises about his work, including “Notes on Ornamentation” (1878), in which he said it was crucial to “make projects economically feasible as a result of the conditions of productions of our time.” This treatise repeatedly — albeit a bit vaguely — champions these so-called conditions of production. But the dragon gate clarifies the point. For Gaudí, the artistry is what you do with affordable materials.
Gaudí’s famous “El Drac” (1900–1914) sculpture at the Parc Güell shimmers in the sun with its blues, oranges, and greens. It’s another deceptively cheap thrill. The mosaic technique is called trencadis, which is Catalan for chopped. It reuses broken ceramic tiles and shards from shattered dishes to create a mosaic surface, recovering what would otherwise be waste materials.
Humility isn’t the first word that comes to mind to describe the Casa Batlló. It’s a heavily ornamented house for a rich family on Barcelona’s equivalent of Park Avenue, the Passeig de Gràcia. It’s quintessential Gaudí with its façade of elaborate, curving forms. But the dragon — like the devil — is in the details. The roof of the house is made of polychromatic scales that are often compared to a dragon’s back, while the interior of the attic, underneath the dragon’s back, resembles a dragon’s rib cage. It was originally used by the servants in the house.
The Sagrada Familia has an everything but the kitchen sink approach to Christian iconography. So it might seem a bit silly to focus on its dragons when its façades tell the entire nativity story of Christ’s birth and passion with numerous sculptural scenes. (The color of the stained glass alone is so vivid it’s hard to focus on anything else.) So, understandably, the dragons are not the first objects that visitors focus on and these beasts can fade into the backdrop. Nevertheless, dragons and serpents appear throughout the colossal basilica.
In the rosary chapel, for example, Gaudí used the image of a dragon to express how unholy he found modern-day war and its bombs. The chapel inventively retells the Adam and Eve story with the Virgin Mary presiding over the death of the righteous, who redeem themselves from the original sin. And, unsurprisingly, Gaudí depicts the serpent to look more like a dragon. In a haunting twist, which still hits home today, he turns that notorious apple into a bomb. In the late 19th century, Barcelona was so rife with anarchist bombings that it became known as the “City of Bombs.”
In the end, it is not so unexpected that dragons pop up in so many of Gaudí most famous works in Barcelona. Dragons are not only allegories for confronting evil in the Catholic religion he cherished, but also of casting out the invaders in the lore of his beloved Catalan culture. As previously mentioned (and explored in depth by the art critic Robert Hughes) Gaudí was mining the legends of St. George and Wilfred the Hairy, whose stories often bleed into each other.
In the ninth century, the Saracens, later known as Moors, were expelled from Barcelona. But they decided to send a fire-breathing dragon to spite the Catalans for retaking their city. The Saracens caught a small dragon in Africa, and then sent it over to Barcelona in a ship. Apparently, the beast was too young to use his fire breath to burn down his cage of a ship and escape. Once they got to shore, the Saracens released the dragon into the wild in Catalunya and it settled in a lair near Sant Llorenc del Munc. To this today, that cave is known as the Cova del Drac. Soon, the dragon was a full-grown menace — eating sheep as well as the peasants and knights who tried to subdue it. Finally, Wilfred stepped in and killed the beast with a lance made from a large oak branch. The Catalans then skinned and stuffed it — and brought out what must have been frighteningly sublime taxidermy for festivities. Thus began a long tradition of prominent public displays of dragons.
As Catalans struggled to define themselves culturally against the Spanish, the dragon as a symbol became a veiled wink at Catalan ingenuity to vanquish any foe and any beast that seeks to colonize them and deprive them of their autonomy. Gaudí was well known as a fervent Catalan nationalist. To this day, the annual feast of St. George intersperses images of dragons, roses, and yellow emblems celebrating Catalan nationalism.
Gaudí was tapping into a far richer iconography for dragons than cute tourist postcards might let on. Today’s tourism has in some ways flattened the complexity of Gaudí’s work, but his dragons are much more than eye candy.