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Who is St. George?

Saint George (ca. 275/281 – 23 April 303) was, according to tradition, a Roman soldier and priest in the Guard of Diocletian, who is venerated as a Christian martyr. In hagiography Saint George is one of the most venerated saints in the Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodox Church, and the Eastern Catholic Churches. He is immortalized in the tale of Saint George and the Dragon and is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. His memorial is celebrated on 23 April, and he is regarded as one of the most prominent military saints.

Saint George is the patron saint of Aragon, Catalonia, England, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, and Russia, as well as the cities of Amersfoort, Beirut, Fakiha, Bteghrine, Cáceres (Spain), Ferrara, Freiburg, Genoa, Ljubljana, Gozo, Milan, Pomorie, Preston, Qormi, Lod, Barcelona and Moscow, as well as a wide range of professions, organizations, and disease sufferers.

Life and Legend

Historians have debated the exact details of the birth of Saint George for over a century, although the approximate date of his death is subject to little debate. The Catholic Encyclopedia takes the position that there seems to be no ground for doubting the historical existence of Saint George, but that little faith can be placed in some of the fanciful stories about him.

The work of the Bollandists Danile Paperbroch, Jean Bolland and Henschen in the 17th century was one of the first pieces of scholarly research to establish the historicity of the saint’s existence via their publications in Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca and paved the way for other scholars to dismiss the medieval legends. Pope Gelasius stated that George was among those saints whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God.

The traditional legends have offered a historicised narration of George’s encounter with a dragon: see “St. George and the Dragon” below. The modern legend that follows below is synthesized from early and late hagiographical sources, omitting the more fantastical episodes, to narrate a purely human military career in closer harmony with modern expectations of reality. Chief among the legendary sources about the saint is the Golden Legend, which remains the most familiar version in English owing to William Caxton’s 15th-century translation.

It is likely that Saint George was born to a Christian noble family in Lydda, Palestine during the late third century between about 275 AD and 285 AD, and he died in Nicomedia. His father, Gerontius, was a Roman army official from Cappadocia and his mother was from Palestine. They were both Christians and from noble families of Anici, so by this the child was raised with Christian beliefs. They decided to call him Georgius (Latin) or Geôrgios (Greek), meaning “worker of the land”. At the age of 14, George lost his father; a few years later, George’s mother, Polychronia, died. Eastern accounts give the names of his parents as Anastasius and Theobaste.

Then George decided to go to Nicomedia, the imperial city of that time, and present himself to Emperor Diocletian to apply for a career as a soldier. Diocletian welcomed him with open arms, as he had known his father, Gerontius — one of his finest soldiers. By his late 20s, George was promoted to the rank of Tribunus and stationed as an imperial guard of the Emperor at Nicomedia.

In the year AD 302, Diocletian (influenced by Galerius) issued an edict that every Christian soldier in the army should be arrested and every other soldier should offer a sacrifice to the Pagan gods. But George objected and with the courage of his faith approached the Emperor and ruler. Diocletian was upset, not wanting to lose his best Tribune and the son of his best official, Gerontius. George loudly renounced the Emperor’s edict, and in front of his fellow soldiers and Tribunes he claimed himself to be a Christian and declared his worship of Jesus Christ. Diocletian attempted to convert George, even offering gifts of land, money and slaves if he made a sacrifice to the Pagan gods. The Emperor made many offers, but George never accepted.

The Coat of Arms of Moscow depicts a horseman often informally identified with Saint George.

Recognizing the futility of his efforts, Diocletian was left with no choice but to have him executed for his refusal. Before the execution George gave his wealth to the poor and prepared himself. After various torture sessions, including laceration on a wheel of swords in which he was resuscitated three times, George was executed by decapitation before Nicomedia’s city wall, on April 23, 303. A witness of his suffering convinced Empress Alexandra and Athanasius, a pagan priest, to become Christians as well, and so they joined George in martyrdom. His body was returned to Lydda for burial, where Christians soon came to honour him as a martyr.

Although the above distillation of the legend of George connects him to the conversion of Athanasius, Edward Gibbon argued that George, or at least the legend from which the above is distilled, is based on George of Cappadocia, a notorious Arian bishop who was Athanasius’ most bitter rival. According to Professor Bury, Gibbon’s latest editor, “this theory of Gibbon’s has nothing to be said for it”. He adds that: “the connection of St. George with a dragon-slaying legend does not relegate him to the region of the myth”. And according to the 4th century historian Rufinus, Athanasius was actually brought up by Christian ecclesiastical authorities from a very early age, beginning while he was merely a young boy. George of Cappodocia did have a military connection, but as a black market supplier, and he was strangled to death by an enraged mob, on account of his pillaging and other deprivations, rather than being executed or tortured for his faith.

Saint George and the dragon

The episode of St George and the Dragon was a legend brought back with the Crusaders and retold with the courtly appurtenances belonging to the genre of Romance. The earliest known depiction of the legend is from early eleventh-century Cappadocia, (in the iconography of the Eastern Orthodox Church, George had been depicted as a soldier since at least the seventh century); the earliest known surviving narrative text is an eleventh-century Georgian text.

In the fully-developed Western version, which developed as part of the Golden Legend, a dragon makes its nest at the spring that provides water for the city of “Silene” (perhaps modern Cyrene) in Libya or the city of Lydda, depending on the source. Consequently, the citizens have to dislodge the dragon from its nest for a time, to collect water. To do so, each day they offer the dragon at first a sheep, and if no sheep can be found, then a maiden must go instead of the sheep. The victim is chosen by drawing lots. One day, this happens to be the princess. The monarch begs for her life to be spared, but to no avail. She is offered to the dragon, but there appears Saint George on his travels. He faces the dragon, protects himself with the sign of the cross, slays the dragon, and rescues the princess. The grateful citizens abandon their ancestral paganism and convert to Christianity.

The dragon motif was first combined with the standardised Passio Georgii in Vincent of Beauvais’ encyclopedic Speculum historale and then in Jacobus de Voragine, Golden Legend, which guaranteed its popularity in the later Middle Ages as a literary and pictorial subject.

The parallels with Perseus and Andromeda are inescapable. In the allegorical reading, the dragon embodies a suppressed pagan cult. The story has other roots that predate Christianity. Examples such as Sabazios, the sky father, who was usually depicted riding on horseback, and Zeus’s defeat of Typhon the Titan in Greek mythology, along with examples from Germanic and Vedic traditions, have led a number of historians, such as Loomis, to suggest that George is a Christianized version of older deities in Indo-European culture.

In the medieval romances, the lance with which St George slew the dragon was called Ascalon, named after the city of Ashkelon in Israel.

Veneration as a martyr

A church built in Lydda during the reign of Constantine I (reigned 306–337), was consecrated to “a man of the highest distinction”, according to the church history of Eusebius of Caesarea; the name of the patron was not disclosed, but later he was asserted to have been George. By the time of the Muslim conquest in the seventh century, a basilica dedicated to the saint in Lydda existed. The church was destroyed in 1010 but was later rebuilt and dedicated to Saint George by the Crusaders. In 1191 and during the conflict known as the Third Crusade (1189–1192), the church was again destroyed by the forces of Saladin, Sultan of the Ayyubid dynasty (reigned 1171–1193). A new church was erected in 1872 and is still standing.

During the fourth century the veneration of George spread from Palestine through Lebanon to the rest of the Eastern Roman Empire -though the martyr is not mentioned in the Syriac Breviarium- and Georgia. In Georgia the feast day on November 23 is credited to St Nino of Cappadocia, who in Georgian hagiography is a relative of St George, credited with bringing Christianity to the Georgians in the fourth century. By the fifth century the cult of Saint George had reached the Western Roman Empire as well: in 494, George was canonized as a saint by Pope Gelasius I, among those “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to [God].”

In England the earliest dedication to George, who was mentioned among the martyrs by Bede, is a church at Fordington, Dorset, that is mentioned in the will of Alfred the Great. “Saint George and his feast day began to gain more widespread fame among all Europeans, however, from the time of the Crusades.” The St. George’s flag, a red cross on a white field, was adopted by England and the City of London in 1190 for their ships entering the Mediterranean to benefit from the protection of the Geonoese fleet during the Crusades and the English Monarch paid an annual tribute to the Doge of Genoa for this privilege. An apparition of George heartened the Franks at the siege of Antioch, 1098, and made a similar appearance the following year at Jerusalem. Chivalric military Order of St. George were established in Aragon (1201), Genoa, Hungary, and by Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor, and Edward III put his Order of the Garter under the banner of St. George. In England the Synod of Oxford, 1222 declared St. George’s Day a feast day in the kingdom of England. The chronicler Froissart observed the English invoking St. George as a battle cry on several occasions during the Hundred Years’ War. In his rise as a national saint George was aided by the very fact that the saint had no legendary connection with England, and no specifically localized shrine, as of Thomas Becket at Canterbury: “Consequently, numerous shrines were established during the late fifteenth century,” Muriel C. McClendon has written, “and his did not become closely identified with a particular occupation or with the cure of a specific malady.”

The establishment of George as a popular saint and protective giant  in the West that had captured the medieval imagination was codified by the official elevation of his feast to a festum duplex  at a church council in 1415, on the date that had become associated with his martyrdom, 23 April. There was wide latitude from community to community in celebration of the day across late medieval and early modern England, and no uniform “national” celebration elsewhere, a token of the popular and vernacular nature of George’s cultus and its local horizons, supported by a local guild or confraternity under George’s protection, or the dedication of a local church. When the Reformation in England severely curtailed the saints’ days in the calendar, St. George’s Day was among the holidays that continued to be observed.

Iconography

St. George is most commonly depicted in early icons, mosaics and frescos wearing armour contemporary with the depiction, executed in gilding and silver colour, intended to identify him as a Roman soldier. After the Fall of Constantinople and the association of St George with the crusades, he is more often portrayed mounted upon a white horse.

At the same time St George began to be associated with St. Demetrius, another early soldier saint. When the two saints are portrayed together mounted upon horses, they may be likened to earthly manifestations of the archangels Michael and Gabriel. St George is always depicted in Eastern traditions upon a white horse and St. Demetrius on a red horse St George can also be identified in the act of spearing a dragon, unlike St Demetrius, who is sometimes shown spearing a human figure, understood to represent Maximian.

A 2003 Vatican stamp issued on the anniversary of the Saint’s death depicts an armored Saint George atop a white horse, killing the dragon.

Moscow has probably more sculptures of St. George slaying the dragon than any other city.

During the early second millennium, George came to be seen as the model of chivalry, and during this time was depicted in works of literature, such as the medieval romances.

Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, compiled the Legenda Sanctorum, (Readings of the Saints) also known as Legenda Aurea (the Golden Legend) for its worth among readers. Its 177 chapters (182 in other editions) contain the story of Saint George.

Modern Russians interpret the icon not as a killing but as a struggle, against ourselves and the evil among us.  The dragon never dies but the saint persists with his horse (will and support of the people) and his spear (technical means). In Eastern Orthodox Christianity it is possible to find Icons of St.Georgie riding on Black horse, as well, there are various examples in Russian Iconography, like the Icon in British Museum Collection.

Colours and flag

The “Colours of Saint George”, or St George’s Cross are a white flag with a red cross, frequently borne by entities over which he is patron (e.g. the Republic of Genoa and then Liguria, England, Georgia, Catalonia etc.

The origin of the St George’s Cross came from the earlier plain white tunics worn by the early crusaders

The same colour scheme was used by Viktor Vasnetsov for the facade of the Tretyakov Gallery, in which some of the most famous St. George icons are exhibited and which displays St. George as the coat of arms of Moscow over its entrance.

Patronages

As a highly celebrated saint in both the Western and Eastern Christian churches, a large number of Patronages of Saint George exist throughout the world.

The country of Georgia, where devotions to the saint date back to the fourth century, is named after him, as well as a large number of towns and cities around the world. Geographer Vakhushti Bagrationi wrote that there are 365 Orthodox churches in Georgia named after Saint George according to the number of days in a year.

In England, where traces of the cult of Saint George predate the Norman Conquest in the eleventh century, by the fourteenth century the saint had been declared both the patron saint and the protector of the royal family.

Devotions to Saint George in Portugal date back to the twelfth century, and Saint Constable attributed the victory of the Portuguese in the battle of Aljubarrota in the fourteenth century to Saint George. During the reign of King John I (1357–1433) Saint George became the patron saint of Portugal and the King ordered that the saint’s image on the horse be carried in the Corpus Christi procession.

Saint George is also one of the patron saints of the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo. In a battle between the Maltese and the Moors, Saint George was alleged to have been seen with Saint Paul and Saint Agata, protecting the Maltese. Besides being the patron of Victoria where St. George’s Basilica, Malta is dedicated to him, St George is the protector of the island Gozo.

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