Dragons, Between science and fiction.

Temporary exhibit from 5 April 2006 to 6 November 2006 at the Grande Galerie de l'Evolution - Jardin des plantes, 36 rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, 75005 Paris, France

A subject at once popular, historic, artistic, and scientific, but also quite mysterious, the dragon has fascinated civilisations around the world from times immemorial. This exhibition takes us on a journey beginning with the creature's mythic origins. We will then venture to distinguish the features common to all dragons despite their diversity, before setting out to explore dragon symbolism worldwide and throughout the ages.

The exhibition is intended for a wide audience, appealing to adults and families alike. Its design makes it highly accessible to children, whether on their own, in school groups or with their families, It is also adapted to handicapped audiences. An exhibition catalogue and other documentation will be published to further enhance the visit and provide lasting memories.

This event brings together a unique collection of art and ethnographic works, natural history specimens and historic documents from museums in France and beyond. While no one can actually claim to have seen one, dragons are so widespread that no visitor can arrive at the exhibition without his or her own vision of the subject. The introduction will examine these clichés and their origins, roles and transformation.

A universal creation

Our voyage into dragon country begins with an overview of just what makes a dragon and why the myth has spanned not only the millennia but also all five continents.

A deep-rooted, long-lasting myth

From the very first trace of "dragons" in China to the digital dragons of the silver screen, this fantastic creature has shown remarkable longevity, changing shape according to the civilisations and populations it encounters as it travels through time and space.

What makes a dragon?

One common aspect of the many faces of our monster is its reptilian nature. Very early on, and in a great many civilisations, reptiles were an object of worship. Even today, reptiles continue to inspire fear and fascination. During the renaissance, a number of "naturalists" classified the dragon among living reptiles. Early representations of dinosaurs were considerably influenced by the reptilian imagery of the dragon. We associate the dragon with the elements: the fire it breathes, the earth where it takes refuge, and the air into which it spreads its wings. Water, however, remains the dragon's element of predilection. This is especially true in Asia, and more specifically in China, a rural land where water is synonymous with plentiful crops. It is also true, however, in Europe

As with many a monster, another constant among dragons is its hybrid nature. It is often described as a "chimera", composed of the attributes of a variety of animals and the elements, which vary according to place and time. Hybridising dragons keeps our curiosity up. Were dragons not prized in a number of natural history curiosity cabinets throughout 16th and 17th century Europe and Japan?

Meet the Dragon

As unknown bones were discovered over the years, they were often attributed to dragons and other fantastic creatures in an attempt to anchor legend in reality. It was not until 18th and 19th centuries that naturalists such as Buffon, Cuvier, and Lacépède relegated forever the dragon to fable and our imaginations. Dragons nevertheless continue to inspire modern scientists who have named many an existing species after their fabled cousin, from the Komodo dragon to the flying dragons of Indonesia.

Dragon symbolism

Having explored the making of the myth, we will move on to the second part of the exhibition, which endeavours to answer the question "what use is a dragon?"

The dragon as a force of nature

Medieval Europe carries on the myths of antiquity in which the dragon is regarded as a force of nature - one to be dominated, but not necessarily killed. The dragon's disappearance is a metaphor for the end of winter with the renewed vegetation that follows. The dragon plays an essential role in explaining and regulating natural phenomena. Like other great figures of Greek mythology, the dragon is associated with the vault of heaven, and a sinuous constellation reminds us of its namesake. In other cultures, the dragon has the power to provoke eclipses by devouring the sun. Elsewhere, he is the master of all water, playing it to salutary or devastating ends.

The dragon as a social symbol

In many legends, the dragon must be vanquished to free a city, save a princess or win a treasure. In general, the battle against such a monster represents a rite of passage, the way to attain a superior state. To move, for instance, from childhood to adulthood or, for a town or society, to be freed from the yoke of an enemy. Not only a ferocious creature but a sometimes benevolent one representing fertility and therefore abundance, the dragon is patron to the heirs of the Chinese emperors, and a symbol of power.

The dragon of religion and morality

In the fabulous "Persian Book of Kings", as in many of the theogonies and cosmogonies of antiquity, the dragon is chaos incarnate, which a hero must vanquish if order is to reign and life to flourish. A monster in every sense of the word, the dragon also embodies our fear of the end of the world, whether as the dragon of the Bible's Apocalypse or as Japan's post-atomic Godzilla. The western Church took up the dragon as monster, assimilating it to absolute evil in contrast with good, saints bringing down the evil beast. Our frightful figure of evil also has a helpful corollary: by frightening the enemy, the dragon is also a protector! It is therefore not surprising that armies have sometimes chosen the malevolent figure as an emblem. In this role as protector, the dragon is often used as a decorative motif.

The exhibition ends on a poetic note and a return to the present where visitors are once again confronted with the familiar faces of the contemporary dragons from the exhibition's introduction; dragons we can be sure they will see in a new light!

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