For 1500 years, the image of St. George has been an inspiration for not only countries (England), churches (Greek, Coptic) but also for various enterprises, such as healing, agriculture. We think of the image of St. George’s dressed in knight regalia, typically riding a white horse lance in hand slaying a groveling dragon, the classic story of good vs. evil. This month the story is not about a plaque but a banner which functions in a similar way. The banner in the Church depicting the classic scene is of recent origin – fabricated by our own Mary Ellsworth in 1990. But was he a real person or just a legend? Obviously, there aren’t dragons to slay which may cast doubt on a real living, George.
The real St. George is not English at all but born a Roman in Lydda about 25 miles from Jerusalem around 270 AD. His parents were both Christians and he was raised with Christian beliefs. His name George came from “Geo” (world) and “Eros” (worker). His father became closely associated with the Roman Emperor. George due to his father’s influence joined the Roman army rising to the rank of Tribune in the Imperial Guard, the latter an elite group close associated with the Emperor.
George’s Christian beliefs clashed with that of the Emperor. A new decree by the Emperor Diocletian, required
everyone in Imperial Service to render divine honors to Emperor by sprinkling a pinch of incense on a lamp before the statue. George loudly renounced the Emperor’s edict by tearing it up. In front of his fellow soldiers and Tribunes he claimed himself to be a Christian and declared his worship of Jesus Christ.
Brought before Emperor, he did not ask for pardon as would be expected but pleaded for justice for Christians. Commanded to offer honors to the Emperor, he refused declaring – “I believe in Jesus Christ, who only is both God and Love.” Diocletian attempted to sway George by offering even offering gifts of land, money and slaves if he made a sacrifice to the Pagan gods and renounce his Christian beliefs. George never accepted. He finally was tortured, judged obdurate and condemned to death. Before the execution George gave his wealth to the poor and prepared himself. He was beheaded on April 23, 303AD, which has since been known as St. George day.
After the execution, friends recovered his body, brought it back to Lydda where buried it, planted a rose bush on grave. A church was eventually built at the site. The current church there dates from 1872. George’s stance of Christianity came only years before the later Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. George became a saint in 494AD. By that time the story of George had been brought to England.
Note there is no reference to a dragon with the St. George story to this point. The story of St. George appeared “Legend Aurea” of James of Vorgaigne 1255 at the time of the Crusades. It goes something like this.. A dragon made his nest in a spring that provides water for Silene. 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 two sheep a day to satisfy its hunger. When the sheep were gone a human victim was necessary/ Lots were drawn to determine the victim and they fell upon the king’s daughter. 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 and pierced the dragon. He asked the maiden for her girdle and binding it round the dragon’s neck led it. meek as a lamb, to the maid, who took it to the city. St George told the people to have no fear, but to be baptized, and bidding them to honor the clergy and pity the poor.” In this version there is no actual killing of the dragon.
The story is that of Man’s fall and his salvation. As Anthony Cooney writes in his volume on St. George: “The city is a man, the king is his reason, which ought to rule over the passions, the princess is his soul and the dragon is the instincts and desires of the flesh. If the instincts are not governed by reason they threaten the soul.”
Cooney believes the acceptance of the story suggests an older oral tradition. He notes the use of the dragon goes back to Roman coinage. A coin struck by Constantine shows a fallen dragon surmounted by the Greek initials of the name of Christ. Caesar was recognized in battle by the purple standard of the dragon. Cooney furthermore suggests that the concept of dragon may be different than ours, less evil but more fearsome. Obviously, St. George did not slay the Roman Empire. However, George’s example inspired the 3rd century Christian to remain vigilant, faithful as he helped to overcome the last assault of the Romans against Christianity. He was an example to those who hid their religion or whose religion had dimmed almost three centuries after Christ. The dragon could be tamed. Thus, “the dragon was bound by the Church’s girdle and led, meekly as a lamb, into the service of Christ.”
The iconography of George provided an image to the story and developed over time. St. George’s flag became a red cross on a white field and occurred gradually The Crusades made George popular in England. At the first crusade in the Siege of Antioch in 1098 a knight wrote about St. George leading knights and bearing white banners. A century later Richard I sought George as his protector. At the Siege of Jerusalem Richard claimed to have seen vision of St. George bearing a red cross banner. St. George day became part of the calendar in 1220. The use of St. George was continued in his play Henry V with the battle cry –“ God for Harry, England and St. George!”
The image of St. George continues to be explored in our time. The bottom image entitled “Good Defeats Evil” (1990) is at the United Nations Building on the East Side of First Avenue between 45th & 46th Street and is the creation of Georgian artist Zurab Tsereteli . It is a 39-foot-high bronze statue of a mounted St. George thrusting a lance into the heart of a two-headed dragon. The dragon is partially constructed from the rubble of Soviet and American missiles. Slices of the American Pershing-2 and Soviet SS-2 form the dragon’s body.