log book

Drawing snakes

Thoughts on Peter and the Snake

We stand for the first time in front of the equestrian monument to Peter the Great in the city center of St. Petersburg. We start to sketch the monument: Peter, wide-eyed, atop a horse. His arm outstretched to the distance. The horse, rearing back on its hind legs, tail flung back. The tail, sweeping down to the upraised coils of a massive snake, writhing on the surface of a large slanted boulder. The coiling motion of the snake and the rearing of the horse seem to ripple outward from one point: the horse’s hoof stamps the neck of the snake firmly onto the rock.

On second glance, the tail of the horse seems unnaturally long. Much too long, in fact! And indeed, google tells us that the horse's tail is an important structural element of the sculpture, one whose exceptional length allowed it to rest on the upraised body of the snake, supporting the monument. But it's the snake, not the tail, which is the structural anchor of the work – without it, the horse, and more importantly Peter, would fall.

Detail sketch by Erin of Peter the Great monument. Charcoal on paper.

The more we draw the monument, the more our attention circles on the snake. The snake can only be an enemy in this scenario. But Peter seems almost oblivious to it. It seems unlikely, therefore, that any direct conflict provoked Peter to attack the snake. It's more as if the snake were the very embodiment of all enemies, crushed here metaphorically by Peter's determination and might. The monument tells more of the defeat of future enemies, vanquished before they can even attack thanks to Peter’s vision of a city stronghold in the marshes of the Russian frontier. The snake is invisible to Peter but central to the depiction of his power here, renewed every day as thousands of tourists come to look.

When Peter the Great built his city, he built it precisely so that his subjects, daily and on every corner, would have to think of him. The repetition of references to himself creates a kind of omnipresence in the heads of the population. Peter is everywhere. Peter is Great. He rules through firm reminders of his power to determine every setting in which life in St. Petersburg is lived. In this spirit, Catherine the Great commissioned the monument to her predecessor: it's Peter’s (and presumably also Catherine's) power that the death of the snake should remind us of.

But as we stand drawing, our sketches of the snake remind us of something else entirely: Months ago on our way through Poland we saw something white on the road and slowed down to look at what was coming. It was a snake, and it had been hit by a car. It must have been pregnant, because where its body had been split open, strands of tissue were flung in all directions which ended at white oval forms that could only be eggs. The snake lay coiled with her eggs scattered around her as we stopped. Then we flinched as she raised her upper body, now completely detached from the lower body by the tire wound, and hissed at us. She wasn’t dead yet. We looked around for a rock to kill her with, but we couldn’t find any. Instead we stood and waited for her to die, cars honking as they zipped around us.

It seems to me that there's a freedom in drawing which simply can't be taken from it - not even by a symbol as vehement as Peter's dying snake. It lies somewhere between the act of observing a thing and setting a mark on a paper, and folded in between the memories and associations which every drawing rouses without ever having spoken them.

- Erin