Wednesday 16 April 2014

G is for George

Every George a Treasure

Saint George is the most popular soldier saint ever – best known in the west as the patron saint of England, he is also a favorite in Georgia, Egypt, Bulgaria, Aragon, Catalonia, Romania, Ethiopia, India, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, Serbia, the Ukraine, Russia, and Syria. 

And then there is Greece where even today over eleven percent of the male population are named after him.  He outdistances the evangelist John by two and one half points, the emperor Constantine by three, Demetrius (Thessaloniki’s home grown warrior saint) by three and Christ by four. Not bad for a saint whose provenance is shaky to say the least and whose greatest exploit never happened.

I first became interested in his icons because of the diminutive little fellow sitting on the back of his horse and carrying what looks like a jug. 

He is quite a popular subject in many Greek churches I have visited but he isn’t always there:
A Fifteenth century icon (

That made me curious because, if there is one thing you learn about icons, is that there are rules (except about depicting dragons apparently). His small size does not mean he was actually tiny; in icons the more important the person, the larger his or her size, so Saint George is the much more important figure.

Not only that: this little guy appears in quite a variety of costumes whereas George almost always appears the same; a soldier with a flowing red cape and golden armour.  So, who is the elusive hitchhiker?

I decided to investigate the Saint George story and, in the process discovered that icons are not quite as static as I thought. 

George the Martyr
Tradition has him born in Lydda in Palestine of Greek parents in 280 AD.  He was a soldier in the Roman army, and martyred on April 23rd 303 at the age of 23.  All of his icons show him as a beardless youth. He was not mentioned by name in the earliest book of Martyrs by Eusebius of Cesarea although he did get a mention in an inscription as early as 323 in a church in western Syria.  In the beginning he was one of many…

Martyrs were a vital element in the development and spread of early Christianity Their function was as similar as their fate: to die as horrible a death as their biographers could imagine, and then to represent in perpetuity the Christian virtues of unshakeable faith in God and steadfastness in the face of pagan intransigence. Their veneration today and placement around the walls of Orthodox churches are constant reminders of their sacrifice, -and their essential sameness.  Wall painters wrote their names beside them because, except for the truly icon adept, one martyr holding a cross or crown is pretty hard to distinguish from another.

                                A row of martyrs in Ravenna 526 AD (wiki commons)

1200 years later in Plataniotissa

The story of George’s tortures and death functioned as an indictment of the hated emperor  Diocletian who was the instigator of the last great pogrom against Christianity before his successors began their about face and accepted the new religion a short twenty five years later.

 This is a very political story. Diocletian is depicted as hopelessly stupid, stubborn, cruel, and as singularly unable to ‘get it’ as any pharaoh. His stupidity can only make the legend of Constantine, the emperor who did accept Christianity, shine even more brightly.

There is a strong folk tale element in the telling of martyrs’ tales - with all of the simplifications and exaggerations of the genre. 

The Story

George refused to worship pagan gods – an order Diocletian had issued in order to test the loyalty of his army.  As a punishment he was lashed to a spiked wheel. When released, he was completely unharmed. Diocletian, stubbornly ignoring the angelic halo that was already beginning to form around George’s head, had him sealed in a pit with lime and water.  When the pit was emptied three days later, George was intact and proclaiming he had been saved by the power of God.

Fitted with iron sandals he was then forced to race through the city while a gauntlet of soldiers beat him.  Not only was he unscathed, but managed, while passing a tomb during the run, to raise its occupant from the dead! This caused many converts but did not help the dead man who was immediately put to death for praising the Lord.
The emperor ordered him poisoned by a magician well versed in the art. The poison had no effect and, when the impressed magician then declared for God, he too was promptly executed.
  Then Alexandra, Diocletian’s wife was convinced by what she saw and declared herself a Christian; she was imprisoned and executed by her angry husband.  George was asked yet again to worship the pagan gods. Instead he made the sign of the cross and the idols were destroyed!
Diocletian then had him beheaded.  This worked – something had to; it’s a martyr’s tale after all.  And thus, with echoes of John the Baptist and of Christ already embedded in his story, the legend of Saint George was set to begin.
If I were recounting the tale (I envision a campfire rather than smoking clay lamps) I would feel compelled to add a detail or two just for dramatic effect. Others did as well. The story grew with the telling.
  Is it true?  Some historians believe that Diocletian got a bad ‘rap’ and was a good emperor for his era and, although Diocletian’s martyred wife is still an Orthodox saint( her name day is April 21), the truth is that she died well after her husband.  Over time, legends insist on their own reality.

Saint Alexandra (www.

That a young soldier died during the persecutions of Diocletian and was buried in his birth town of Lydda is true. His grave was known and visited after his death. The very position of his martyrium in the Holy land would have made it a popular pilgrimage spot after Eleni the mother of the Emperor Constantine made pilgrimage and visits to martyr’s shrines an important part of Christian observance.  (She had visited the Holy Lands in the 326-8.)   Lydda is only  25 miles north west of Jerusalem near the coast and close to ancient Joppa,  today’s Tel Aviv. That ease of access would have helped the legend grow. 

13th century icon of Saint George showing his life and many tortures


A saint’s story, once in place, can gain critical mass in two ways: miracles performed after his death, or new details added to his life story.  Saint George  would benefit from both. 

Enter The Dragon

At some point (the first written accounts are from the 11th century) the dragon story, a perfect echo of the Perseus legend, became attached to George.
The story goes that in Libya a small kingdom was threatened by a lake dwelling monster (a crocodile, dragon, serpent depending on the teller) and that, at first, sheep were sacrificed to ward off the danger to the kingdom, but the dragon wanted more: the sacrifice became a young virgin drawn by lot – and one year the virgin in question was the king’s daughter. The distraught king offered half of his kingdom and his daughter to whomever could slay the dragon and save them. Enter George, (perhaps on horseback although the story seems to predate the famous horse), who first skewers the dragon and then instructs the princess to make a leash of her belt so that it can be led back in captivity to the city walls and dispatched! At this point the story diverges from the ancient myth. George is slated for martyrdom, not marriage or gaining a kingdom in this life.  And his secret weapon is not the Medusa head but the power of the Trinity and the Cross.
Why this story got attached to Saint George is moot but it made him a super star and a full blown champion of Orthodoxy because the details of his dragon escapade resonated nicely with the Archangel Michaels defeat of the beast (Satan) in Revelations 6:2: And I saw and behold a white horse and he that sat upon him had a bow, and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering and to conquer.
Saint George’s epithet is Trophy (or victory) Bearer, and if the white horse was not there at the beginning of the dragon episode, its presence quickly became iconic in every sense of the word.  
George on the White Horse became the norm:

We have the white horse, Saint George in heroic mode and dressed like a Roman soldier with a flowing red cape is  skewering the beast with the aid of an angel from Heaven  (sometimes Divine help is a painted hand in the corner) with the king watching from the battlements, and the princess ready to leash the dragon.
Many iconographers simplified the image:

15th century Russian icon, (

But by this time, everyone knew the story and this simpler version may have been intended to resonate with the Archangel connection.  (His  flowing cape often appears wing-like.)

The Crusaders, when they appeared on the scene, saw George’s exploits as a beau ideal of warfare and adopted him as their own. They didn’t bring his legend to England because his story had already been translated into Anglo-Saxon but they buffed it and burnished it and made him universally known.  In the west he is often depicted in chain mail or a medieval jousting costume:

Many Muslims also identified him with one of their own heroes,  Al Khidr, who, like George ,was said to have killed a dragon in one of his exploits. Muslims often participated in the celebration of his Feast Day. 

Every George a treasure…
Saint George as he is depicted today is many Georges rolled into one. He became a culture carrier both encapsulating and perpetuating the values of the cultures which venerated him.  And, if his rise from soldier martyr to dragon slayer, to defender of the faith against heresy, to crusader beau ideal is impossible to pinpoint historically, iconically speaking, it doesn’t really matter.
Icons, like great myths, do not exist in ‘real’ time.

Now, about that boy……
The Boy
This story falls into the category of miracles performed after the death of the saint. The literary origins are early 11th century.  By that time many Byzantine churches were already dedicated to the saint. 

Version One

During their invasion of the Byzantine area of Byzantine Paphlagonia (on the south coast of the  Black Sea), the Arabs enslaved many Greeks among them a devout young boy who had been a servant in the church of St. George. So beautiful, he was made a cup bearer of the Arab leader but when he refused to become Muslim he was banished to the kitchens. He prayed to Saint George and one evening, ewer in hand, he was picked up by a mysterious rider on a white horse only to be set down in an abandoned building where he fell asleep. Miraculously, when he awoke he was safe among monks at a monastery of St George. The monks were at first terrified because of his alien Arab dress. But when they realized what had happened, the monastery rejoiced.

Version Two gets some embellishments:

In this version Paphalogonia is already a pilgrimage site for Saint George and a soldier there named Leon had a son named George. He was obliged by custom to send George to war in his place because he was too old to go himself. The war was in the time of the emperor Phocis and against Bulgarians and other barbarian tribes.  Young George prayed to the saint before he left. He was captured by the Bulgarians but was so handsome that the Bulgarian ruler made him his steward or cup bearer. His parents, especially his mother, pray for his return. A year later, on the eve of  Saint George’s Day, as the bereft parents sat with invited guests, young George, far away, was about to attend the Bulgarian tsar with a jug of hot water in hand and a towel over his arm. Suddenly  the saint appeared, placed him behind him on his horse and returned him to his astounded parents so quickly that after his parents got over the shock of seeing the ‘stranger’ in alien  Bulgarian robes recognized him and drank the still hot water from the jug! Young George dedicated the jug to the church where it became a chalice for communion. (Elements of this story have recognizable historical roots – the war in question took place in the 900s.)

Version Three
This version may or may not be later. The venue has changed. The boy is now from Mytilene  (Lesbos) in the North Aegean sea and fatherless.  While the people are gathered at the church on Saint George’s day, wily Saracens from Crete attacked and took many prisoners including the son of the devout widow. He was so handsome that the emir of Crete made him his personal cup bearer.
All that year the widow prayed to Saint George and on the anniversary of his capture, Saint George appeared in Crete on his white horse and returned the boy to his mother’s house in time to celebrate his feast day. The lad still had a jug of wine meant for the emir in his hand. All of Mytilene revered the saint for this miracle.
All versions of this miracle speak to the unsettled times the besieged empire was living through,  and to the real anguish of so many parents who lost their sons to Arabs, Bulgarians or Saracens.

 To bring this back to Churches in Greece, let me say that this theme became especially popular a theme in Greek churches during the Turkish Occupation.  During that occupation first sons of Christian families were required to be taken, converted to Islam and made Janissaries (personal bodyguards of the sultan). 

  This story of a stolen son returned would have struck a sympathetic chord with many under the Turkish yoke.

 The following example is one of my favorites:

From the church of Zoodochus Pigi Zarnata, Mani, painted in 1787.

(From John Chapman's Mani Guide)

This story would be told and retold again and again and the different versions and eras explain why the boy on the back of Saint George’s horse is dressed so differently and carries such a variety of jugs, ewers, or cups. He was either washing dishes, bringing hot water, or serving wine when rescued. John Chapman in his wonderful Mani Guide calls him a coffee bearer. I can find no reference to this but it may have been a natural add on during the Turkish period and many of the jugs do look like coffee pots!

This legend of rescue also served as a subversive message. Greeks seeing an icon of the lad on the horse during the Turkish period could take heart at its symbolic message – George – with the help of God – would act as a savior of the nation and all lost sons would ultimately return. 

All warrior saints became darlings in the Byzantine period because of the empire’s constant need to defend its borders. But George remains the undisputed ultimate warrior saint, so much so that other warrior saints came to be depicted on horseback and slaying dragons too. Orthodoxy loves symmetry.

I was tempted to put in all of the photos I have of the boy, but did not.. Suffice it to say that Mani churches are a fertile field for this particular icon. My favorite so far is in the north Peloponnese in the church of   Agios Georgios (where else) in Evrostina (see Oddball Churches). Your favorite might very well be the one you manage to discover all on your own.

George’s Feast Day is on April 23 providing that  Orthodox Easter happens  before that that date; if Easter  occurs after April 23, his feast is deferred until the Monday following Easter Sunday.
Dedicated to Georgos Gripeos: όπου Γιώργος και μάλαμα.







1 comment:

  1. Penmanship an idiom is no circumstance at numerous if you don't clog the mains of it. If you are eligible on the machinations in talk an abacus consequently it is a colossal critical for you to pilot a computer gymnastics. Regarding about the grabs, it is important that you consider numerous of them no synonymous what this conversation desire to speech. ειδησεισ ελλαδασ τωρα