Scattered bones and skulls and severed heads lie at the margins of this gruesome scene, at the centre of which a dragon feasts on two entwined bodies, sinking its teeth in one's face and its claws in the other's headless corpse. A glimpse of hope for a positive outcome can be seen in the right background , where Cadmus is seen slaying the same bloodthirsty beast.
The myth of Cadmus, prince of the Phoenician city of Tyre, is related in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Cadmus and his companions travelled to the Delphic Oracle to ask for help in finding his sister, who had been carried away by Zeus. Instead, the Oracle commanded him to to follow a cow and build a city at the first place the animal decided to lie down. When the cow collapsed, Cadmus sent his companions to fetch water to offer it to the Goddess Athena, they were killed by a dragon guarding the well. Cadmus confronted the beast and eventually prevailed. Athena told him to sow the dragon's teeth into the ground, out of which the city of Thebes would arise.
The present engraving, arguably one of the most eccentric works by the virtuoso engraver Hendrick Goltzius, is based on the painting by Cornelis van Haarlem in the National Gallery, London (inv. no. NG1893), the composition of which it renders on reverse. The truculent scene afforded the painter - and the engraver - with an opportunity to depict nude bodies in contorted poses and an ever-more exagerated style, each in their own medium thus creating a masterpiece of Dutch Mannerism.
The Dragon devouring the Companions of Cadmus is a dazzling showpiece of Goltzius's technical virtuosity and magistral use of the burin. Disturbing as it may be, one cannot help but admire all the gory detail, the bulging muscles and the torn flesh, especially in fine, early impressions such as the present one, where the whole scene becomes three-dimensional - and shockingly alive.