St George and the Slaying of the Dragon

St George

Saint George was a Christian soldier in the Roman army. He was of Cappadocian Greek descent and served in the Praetorian Guard for emperor Diocletian. He was sentenced to death for not renouncing his Christian faith, and after his death, he was venerated as a saint and megalomartyr. He has been particularly revered as a military saint since the Crusades, and is honored by Christians, Druze, and some Muslims as a martyr of monotheism.

Saint George is remembered in hagiography as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers and one of the most famous military saints. He is honored through the legend of Saint George and the Dragon. His memorial, Saint George‘s Day, is celebrated annually on the 23rd of April. Nations such as England, Ukraine, Ethiopia, and Georgia, along with Catalonia and Aragon in Spain and Moscow in Russia, have all claimed George to be their patron saint. He is also the patron of several regions, cities, universities, professions, and organizations. The ChurchMosque of Saint George in Lod (Lydda), Israel, is said to contain his remains.

 

The Mysterious Origins of Saint George

Very little is known about Saint George‘s life, but it is thought that he was a Roman officer of Greek descent who was martyred in one of the preConstantinian persecutions.

His veneration is believed to date back to the 5th century, and possibly even the 4th century, with the story of the dragon being added in the 11th century. Early sources provide conflicting information.

The earliest source that provides information about George‘s life is a Greek hagiography from the 5th century. An earlier work by Eusebius, written in the 4th century, had added to the legend without naming George or providing significant detail.

In the 17th century, the Bollandists Daniel Papebroch, Jean Bolland, and Godfrey Henschen did research to prove the saint‘s historicity, which was published in Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca. Pope Gelasius I also declared in 494 that George was among those saintswhose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God.”

The most comprehensive version of George‘s story is a translation of a fifthcentury Greek text into Syriac from about 600. From fragments preserved in the British Library, an English translation was published in 1925.

In the Greek tradition, George was born to Christian Greek parents in Cappadocia. After his father‘s death, his mother (originally from Lydda in Syria Palaestina) returned with him to her hometown. He became a soldier in the Roman army, but was arrested and tortured because of his Christian faith. On the following day, he was paraded and then beheaded, with his body being buried in Lydda.

According to other sources, after his mother‘s death he traveled to Nicomedia, where he was persecuted by one Dadianus. In later versions of the Greek legend, this name is changed to Diocletian, and George‘s martyrdom is set in the Diocletian persecution of 303 AD. The setting in Nicomedia is secondary and does not match with the earliest cults of the saint in Diospolis.

Saint George was executed by decapitation on 23 April 303. A witness of his suffering inspired Empress Alexandra of Rome to convert to Christianity, and she joined George in martyrdom. His body was then buried in Lydda, where Christians soon came to honor him.

 

Icon of St. George slaying the Dragon, cloisonné enamel on gold (14.5x12 cm), Art Museum of Georgia, Tblisi.
Icon of St. George slaying the Dragon, cloisonné enamel on gold (14.5x12 cm), Art Museum of Georgia, Tblisi.

In the Latin Passio Sancti Georgii (6th century), Diocletian is replaced by Dacian, the Emperor of the Persians. The martyrdom was extended to more than twenty separate punishments over seven years, and 40,900 pagans were converted to Christianity, including the empress Alexandra. When George passed away, the wicked Dacian was taken away in a whirlwind of fire. In later Latin versions, the persecutor is the Roman emperor Decius or a Roman judge under Diocletian named Dacian.

Early Life of Saint George: A Mystery

There is not much known about the early life of Saint George, but according to The Catholic Encyclopedia and other historical sources, it is believed that he did exist. However, the details of his life and supposed accomplishments cannot be confirmed. The Diocletianic Persecution of 303, which targeted Christian soldiers in the Roman army, is a historical event.

Edward Gibbon argued that the legend of Saint George is based on George of Cappadocia, a notorious 4thcentury Arian bishop. This identification is seen as highly unlikely. Bishop George was killed by Gentile Greeks for imposing high taxes, especially inheritance taxes. J. B. Bury, who edited the 1906 edition of Gibbon‘s The Decline and Fall, stated that this theory of Gibbon‘s was not credible. He also pointed out that the connection of Saint George with a dragonslaying legend did not make him a myth. It is likely that Saint George was martyred before 290.

 

The Legend

The legend of Saint George and the Dragon first appeared in an 11th century Georgian source, and became widely known in Catholic Europe in the 12th century.

According to the Golden Legend, a 13th century work by Jacobus de Voragine, George died at the hands of a Dacian in 287 AD. The legend tells of a dragon causing terror in the city of Silene, Libya, and the people having to sacrifice sheep and eventually humans to the dragon. The king’s daughter was chosen as the next sacrifice, but Saint George saved her by killing the dragon with a lance. The king was grateful and offered George treasures, but George gave them to the poor instead. The people of the city were so impressed by this that they converted to Christianity and were baptized.

The Golden Legend provided a popular version of the story of Saint George’s battle with a dragon. This version was widely read due to William Caxton’s 15th century translation of the text. In medieval literature, the lance used by George to kill the dragon was called Ascalon, named after the city of Ashkelon in the Levant. Winston Churchill even used the name Ascalon for his personal aircraft during World War II. The imagery of a horseman with a spear defeating evil was a common theme in Christian art throughout history.

 

Muslim Legends

Miniature of St George and the Dragon, ms. of Legenda Aurea, dated 1348, BNF Français 241, fol. 101v.

Miniature of St George and the Dragon, ms. of Legenda Aurea, dated 1348, BNF Français 241, fol. 101v.

According to some Muslim texts, George (also known as Jirjis or Girgus in Arabic) is portrayed as a prophetic figure. These texts state that he lived among a group of believers who were in direct contact with the last apostles of Jesus. He is described as a wealthy merchant who opposed the construction of a statue of Apollo by the king of Mosul, Dadan. After resisting the king, George was tortured and imprisoned but was aided by angels. He revealed that the idols were controlled by Satan, and was ultimately martyred when the city was destroyed by God in a rain of fire.

Some Muslim scholars have attempted to find a historical basis for the widespread popularity of Saint George. According to Muslim legend, he was martyred during the rule of Diocletian, and was killed multiple times but always resurrected. The legend is more detailed in the Persian version of al-Tabari where it is said that he could raise the dead, make trees grow, and cause flowers to bloom on pillars. The world was covered in darkness after one of his deaths, but the darkness lifted when he came back to life. He converted the queen, but she was later executed. He then prayed to God to let him die, which was granted.

According to Al-Tha’labi, Saint George was from Palestine and lived during the time of some of Jesus’ disciples. He was killed multiple times by the king of Mosul, but always resurrected. When the king tried to starve him, he touched a piece of dry wood brought by a woman and it turned green, with various fruits and vegetables growing from it. After his fourth death, the city was burned along with him. The account of one of his deaths by Ibn al-Athir is similar to the crucifixion of Jesus, stating that “when he died, God sent stormy winds and thunder and lightning and dark clouds, so that darkness fell between heaven and earth, and people were in great wonderment.” The darkness was lifted after his resurrection.

 

Veneration

Saint George dragged through the streets (detail), by Bernat Martorell, 15th century

Saint George dragged through the streets (detail), by Bernat Martorell, 15th century

A church built during the reign of Constantine the Great in Lydda was dedicated to a person of high status, but the name of the patron was not revealed in the church history written by Eusebius. Later, it was claimed that the patron was Saint George.

The veneration of George spread from Syria Palaestina, to Lebanon and the rest of the Byzantine Empire, though he is not mentioned in the Syriac Breviarium. By the 5th century, George’s veneration had also reached the Western Roman Empire. In 494, Pope Gelasius I canonized George as a saint among those “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to [God].”

Initially, the worship of Saint George was primarily centered in Diospolis (Lydda) in Palestine. The earliest mention of Lydda as a pilgrimage site where George’s relics were venerated is found in De Situ Terrae Sanctae by the Archdeacon Theodosius, written between 518 and 530. By the end of the 6th century, the focus of his veneration seems to have moved to Cappadocia. The Life of Saint Theodore of Sykeon, written in the 7th century, also mentions the veneration of the saint’s relics in Cappadocia.

By the time of the early Muslim conquests of the Middle East, which was mostly Christian and Zoroastrian, a basilica dedicated to George existed in Lydda. A new church was built in 1872 and is still standing today, where the feast of the translation of the saint’s relics to that location is celebrated on November 3rd each year.

In England, Saint George was mentioned as a martyr by the 8th century monk Bede. The Georgslied is an Old High German adaptation of his legend composed in the late 9th century. The earliest dedication to the saint in England is a church in Fordington, Dorset, which is mentioned in the will of Alfred the Great. However, George did not become the “patron saint” of England until the 14th century. He was still overshadowed by Edward the Confessor, who was the traditional patron saint of England, until 1552 during the reign of Edward VI when all saints’ banners other than George’s were abolished during the English Reformation.

The appearance of Saint George was believed to have given the Franks hope during the Battle of Antioch in 1098 and a similar event occurred the following year at Jerusalem. The chivalric military order of Sant Jordi d’Alfama was established by King Peter the Catholic from the Crown of Aragon in 1201, Republic of Genoa, Kingdom of Hungary (1326), and by Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor.

Edward III of England associated the Order of the Garter with George, probably in 1348. The chronicler Jean Froissart noted that the English invoked George as a battle cry during the Hundred Years’ War. George’s rise as a national saint was aided by the fact that he had no legendary connection with England, and no specific shrine, like that of Thomas Becket at Canterbury. As a result, numerous shrines were established in the late 15th century, and he was not closely associated with a specific occupation or the cure of a specific ailment.

Following the Crusades, Saint George became a representation of chivalry in literature, including medieval romances. In the 13th century, Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, compiled the Legenda Sanctorum, also known as the Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend). The book, which includes 177 chapters (182 in some editions), features the story of Saint George among many others. After the invention of the printing press, the book became widely popular and a best-seller.

The establishment of Saint George as a popular and protective saint in the West, which captured the medieval imagination, was formalized by the official elevation of his feast day to a “festum duplex” at a church council in 1415, on April 23rd, the date associated with his martyrdom. The celebration of the day varied widely across late medieval and early modern England, and there was no uniform “national” celebration elsewhere, reflecting the popular and vernacular nature of George’s cult and its local focus, supported by local guilds or confraternities under George’s protection, or the dedication of a local church. When the English Reformation limited the number of saint’s days in the calendar, Saint George’s Day was among the holidays that continued to be observed.

In April 2019, the parish church of São Jorge in São Jorge, Madeira Island, Portugal, formally received the relics of Saint George, who is the patron saint of the parish. The event took place during the celebrations for the 504th anniversary of the church’s foundation. The relics were brought by the new Bishop of Funchal, D. Nuno Brás.

 

Featured Image

St George the Great Gillis Coignet

Gillis Coignet, St. George and the Dragon, oil on panel. 193 x 225 cm, Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp

Gillis Coignet, also known as Congnet or Quiniet, was a Flemish Renaissance painter who lived around 1542 to 1599. He was heavily influenced by the Italian style, and primarily painted small historical and mythological paintings. However, he had more success with landscapes, candlelight scenes, and paintings of moonlight. He was a Lutheran, which may have played a role in his move from Antwerp to Amsterdam, and then to Hamburg. He spent the majority of the 1560s in Italy.

Gillis’ paintings reflect the influence of the Venetian school, particularly the styles of Titian and Tintoretto. His use of quick brushstrokes and diverse tonality is reminiscent of the later works of Titian, as seen in the painting Venus and Amor (1579). His Portrait of Pierson de la Hues shows strong observation skills. According to Van Mander, Gillis Coignet painted many night scenes, in which he used gold leaf to emphasize torches and candles. This can be seen in Lottery on the Rusland (1593) which is attributed to Gillis Coignet.

 

Sources

  • earlychurchhistory. (2023). Saint George and the Dragon. Earlychurchhistory.org. https://earlychurchhistory.org/martyrs/saint-george-of-dragon-slayer-fame/

  • ‌Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, January 10). Saint George. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_George

  • ‌Wikipedia Contributors. (2022, July 13). Gillis Coignet. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gillis_Coignet

  • The Story of St George, the “Dragon-Slayer” – Greece Is. (2021, April 27). Greece Is. https://www.greece-is.com/st-george-the-great-martyr/‌

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