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Leonardo’s dragon


Published: 7 May 2019 (GMT+10)
Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019Leonardos-dragon

The month of May 2019 marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo Da Vinci (15 April 1452 – 2 May 1519). The polymath was well known for his contributions to science, history, engineering, architecture, drawing and especially painting, with his most famous painting being the Mona Lisa. For this anniversary the UK’s Royal Collection Trust is displaying some of its collection of Leonardo drawings in 12 different locations. One particular drawing is causing a stir.

Entitled ‘Cats, lions, and a dragon, drawn circa 1517–18’, you may begin to guess what the fuss is about. The pen and ink picture vividly shows cats and lions in various lifelike poses. The note at the bottom of the drawing reads, “Of flexion and extension. This animal species, of which the lion is the prince because of its spinal column which is flexible.” It suggests that the drawing is concerned with the range of movements achievable by cats. Some have linked it to a note by Leonardo indicating that it may have been used in a larger study on animals that walk on all four feet.1 Leonardo would have been able to observe ordinary cats easily, and, “Lions were well enough known in Italy at the time—they were, for example, kept in a cage behind the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence, as one of the symbols of the city.”2 Leonardo even built a moving robot lion around the same time to entertain King Francis I of France.3 It could sit and present flowers from its chest.

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019cats-lions-and-a-dragon

Direct observations

Descriptions of the cat and lion drawings all come to the same conclusion—that they were drawn from direct observations. However, when it comes to the dragon in the picture, the Royal Collection Trust states, “the dragon was added simply as a still more extreme case (as limited only by the artist’s imagination rather than by real anatomy).” But why must this be the case? Surely this is a pure assumption, and a huge one at that. It appears to be based solely upon an evolutionary understanding of history which alleges dinosaurs (dragons) died out 65 million years ago, never living with mankind. It would make much more sense to be consistent and also attribute the dragon drawing to direct observation, rather than the drawing of an imaginary animal amongst real ones. Also, without Leonardo literally looking at the ‘dragon’ how would he be able to draw an extinct animal so accurately?

A real ‘dragon’?

The word dinosaur was coined by Sir Richard Owen in 1841. Before this the word ‘dragon’ covered a large range of animals whose descriptions often very closely match dinosaurs and other extinct reptiles. If this is the case, does Leonardo’s dragon drawing match any of the known dinosaurs today? Expert dino-artefact researcher Vance Nelson4 says of it:

This was a typical depiction in Europe, of what used to be classified as ‘prosauropods’. They are now classified in various groups within a larger group, the basal sauropodomorphs. Though the head has the typical stylization of the 16th century, the morphology nevertheless makes it easy to identify within this group.

What’s interesting about dinosaurs that fall within this group, such as the Lessemsauridae, is that their front and rear legs had a distinctive bend as opposed to straight up-and-down columnar limbs. They also had five claws, just as depicted by Leonardo (see rear right foot). Could such particular detail be fabricated solely from the mind?

What about that tail?

Leonardo’s rendering of the dragon with a coiled tail is not uncommon throughout history, and it may have been an artistic device. However, noting that the first portion of the tail attached to the body is relatively stiff, just like other sauropod dinosaurs, there are other options. It may be that some dinosaurs had a prehensile (grasping) tail, such as some lizards today, easily able to make the same shape as in his drawing. The dinosaur is also notably in what looks like a defensive posture, so the tail could have been drawn capturing it ‘mid-whip’.5 The ability to coil a tail would be handy, such as when sleeping, moving in tight spaces, or even drawing it in defensively. We can no longer observe dinosaurs today, so there is some degree of speculation on the full range of movement of sauropodomorph tails.


Lessons for today

Leonardo’s dragon shows that modern evolutionary assumptions about the past can be quite wrong. It adds to the large body of drawings and depictions of dinosaurs since they exited Noah’s Ark some 4,500 years ago. While they may be extinct today their contemporary existence with humans is well testified to.

References and notes

  1. Leonardo da Vinci, Paris Manuscript E, XIV, Anatomy, Zoology and Physiology, 825, c. 1513–14. Return to text.
  2. Royal Collection Trust., Cats, lions, and a dragon c. 1517–18, rct.uk. Return to text.
  3. Di Angelo, P., Leonardo’s mechanical lion, gingkoedizioni.it, 16 February 2017. Return to text.
  4. Bates, G., Unearthing exciting evidence for creation: Gary Bates interviews fossil researcher Vance Nelson, Creation 41(2), 12–15, 2019. Return to text.
  5. Geggel, L., Dinosaur’s tail whips could have cracked sound barrier, livescience.com, 21 October 2015; cf. Dinosaurs whipped mates into line? Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Dire Dragons
by Vance Nelson
US $32.00
Hard Cover
Monumental Monsters
by Vance Nelson
US $32.00
Hard Cover
Flood Fossils
by Vance Nelson
US $32.00
Hard Cover
Exploring Dinosaurs with Mr Hibb
by Michael Oard, Tara Wolfe, Chris Turbuck, Gary Bates
US $17.00
Hard Cover

Readers’ comments

David B.
I would hardly say that one such drawing “shows that modern evolutionary assumptions about the past can be quite wrong.” Even given that dragons/dinosaurs didn’t go extinct right after the Flood (that would be very disappointing considering the purpose of having them on the Ark), it doesn't seem likely that any would be living where Leonardo would see on—such a rare thing would certainly have created a much larger historical ‘footprint’ through various written accounts, etc.

However, there is something of a case to be made, from all the other cases of similar creatures being depicted, that some dinosaurs survived long enough to be remembered through legends and such into historical times (i.e. more recently than 2,000 BC) and that Leonardo was familiar with such descriptions, and being knowledgeable in anatomy and the comparative anatomy of various animals, was able to re-produce significant realistic aspects from accounts that may have become more fantastic over time.
Jean P.
Watching Antiques Roadshow, I have learned that Chinese and Japanese dragons differ because one has 5 claws and the other ( I think) 3 claws. So maybe they too, saw the dragons they painted on such a lot of their art work?
John J.
Could this have been a komodo dragon? What would negate that possibility? It looks similar very similar.
Jonathan Sarfati
Definitely not. The neck and tail of the animal depicted are too long, and more importantly, it has the column-like legs of dinosaurs, while those of Komodo dragons, like other living reptiles, were sprawled out to the side.
J J.
Could Leonado of gotten this creature mixed up with a salamander? Very far fetch, but just wondering.
Jonathan Sarfati
Not with a salamander as defined in modern biology, for sure, but there were creatures called ‘salamanders’ in legends as well.
Frank G.
Even given that men and dinosaurs did coexist, live “dragons” must have been exceedingly rare by c.1517–18. It would be interesting to know when and where Leonardo would have been able to observe one. To the best of my recollection I don't think I've heard of any “possibly-from-life” depiction of a dinosaur from much later than Leonardo’s time.
F M.
Leonardo’s 500th anniversary was celebrated particularly at Amboise on the Loire in France, where he spent his last few years and was buried. The “salamander” was the emblem of King François 1, associated with Chateau Amboise, which consequently is full of architectural and decorative references very similar to the above drawing.
Michael B.
The Château de Blois in France has wall sculptures on the walls that look almost identical to this Da Vinci drawing. It’s in the same defensive stance and withdrawn coiled tail; very lifelike. In some cases it’s referred to as a salamander.
I’d send you a link but I know it's not allowed; just search "Château de Blois" dragon salamander and images will come up (use the quotation marks as I show).
Your Brother in Christ, Michael
Edmond C.
Interesting that two legends that are found on every continent (with people) are legends of dragons and legends of the flood. This can’t simply be explained away as superstition, although many of the accounts obviously became mythology over time, the core ideas of a great flood and dragons are too prevalent to simply write-off. It is simply hubris that modern people would assume ancients to be simply superstitious peoples who believed in cockamamie mythology with no basis in reality.

I think that after the flood dragons simply did not thrive. Most of the fossils that we find of dragons (aka dinosaurs) are flood fossils. Some of the dragons, probably the smaller ones, did better than the larger varieties, but I suspect that most of the sub-varieties of the dinosaurs kinds died out during the flood never to be seen again. And after the flood, the populations just never reached large numbers. Because of their size, they probably struggled to find food in the post-Flood world and most likely some kinds just went extinct within a few hundred years the Flood. The enormous size and nature of the dragons though were passed down and each culture developed their own legends and myths of the creatures. Yet, some dragons survived even up to and after the Middle Ages, seemingly this was most likely saurischian type dragons, at least in Europe as these are the most depicted type.
Chuck R.
The Chinese Zodiac uses animals to represent the different years and all of the animals are known today except one—the dragon.
As old as the Zodiac is, it’s very likely that the dragon was still a living creature when the calendar was first made.
Jonathan Sarfati
Yes, see for example The Year the Water Dragon Roared.
Zach S.
Hmm? Let's see the creature is drawn with almost 100% accuracy to the Lessemsaurus. From the scales, posture and anatomy, everything is almost a perfect description that he had to have seen one right? Nope, just a figment of Leonardo's imagination. Just unbelievable! But also what a great time to be a Christian! I don't even think Dr. Morris over 50 years ago would've imagined that this much evidence would come to see the light and confirm the truth of God's inerrant Word!

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