St. George might be the world’s most popular saint. Really, you might ask, what about St. Francis or St. Joseph? You’re probably not alone in your skepticism, but have you ever heard of the story of a knight saving a princess from a dragon? Well, that’s the legend of St. George. I suppose everyone who has seen a Disney film “knows” about St. George.
His appeal, though, goes far beyond the most famous chivalrous tale. He’s not only venerated by Catholics, but also by Protestants, especially Anglicans. Furthermore, he’s one of the most popular saints in the Orthodox tradition, and even more surprisingly, many Muslims honor him as Al-Khader. It’s hard to find an individual with a more universal religious appeal, outside of Jesus and Mary.
How many saints have a country named after them? St. George has Georgia, and that’s pretty cool. He is additionally claimed as patron of many other regions and countries such as: Aragon, Armenia, Catalonia, England, Ethiopia, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Palestine, Portugal and Russia. He is the protector of many cities, including Antioch, Barcelona, Beirut, Genoa, Milan and Moscow.
He is also the patron of armorers, butchers, farmers, knights, scouts and soldiers, and he is said to heal those suffering from leprosy, skin diseases and syphilis.
What makes this list even more impressive is that it is far from complete.
Given his past prestige as a preeminent saint, his image has suffered from numerous attacks in the modern era. Many individuals now claim that he never existed. Undeniably, fundamental problems exist with the historical evidence associated with St. George.
(CR file photo)
The oldest accounts of his life are not reliable, focusing exclusively on seven years of torture in which he was killed three times, each time rising from the dead, before his fourth and final death.
More problematic is Pope Gelasius’ declaration in 494, Decretum Gelasianum, advising the faithful not to read the Passion of St. George because it was likely written by heretics.
Related to the papal document, some scholars believe the “real” St. George was George of Cappadocia, a fourth-century Arian bishop of Alexandria, a theory popularized by Edward Gibbon in the eighteenth century.
George, the Arian bishop, rose in prominence as a corrupt contractor, selling bacon to the Roman army, and then after accepting Arianism, he was appointed bishop of Alexandria. His rule was marked by avarice and corruption, and eventually, he was killed by a disgruntled mob. Needless to say, the two claims of St. George being either a mythical figure or a corrupt heretic have hurt his following.
After studying St. George for about 10 years, I am confident that he existed. Skeptics overlook surviving church inscriptions, some of the best evidence for a real St. George. According to tradition, he was martyred around 300, and numerous sixth-century inscriptions that mention St. George still exist, including one at a monastery at Ezra (Zorava) from 515, another at a church in Horvath Hesheq in northern Israel dated to 519, and one more at a church in Shakka in Syria from 535.
Besides these examples of direct evidence of a church dedication, abundant secondary evidence exists for other sixth-century churches dedicated to St. George; including monasteries in Jerusalem, Dorylleon, and Jericho, and churches in Bizani, Constantinople, Edessa and Cairo. It’s unlikely that that a non-existent individual would have produced such a widespread cult in 200 years.
Many people cite Eusebius of Caesarea’s Historia Ecclesiastica as the first reference to St. George. Eusebius recorded the story of a man who tore the imperial edict of Diocletian into pieces and was then martyred in Nicomedia. This silver bullet for the existence of St. George is flawed, however, because the martyr is unnamed. Furthermore, the edict was issued on February 24, making St. Euethius the likely martyr because he was martyred on February 24, 303, at Nicomedia.
The oldest Passion of St. George is a fifth-century manuscript composed in Greek and preserved in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, of which only fragments survive. The Greek Passion served as the basis of Syriac versions, and the oldest Syriac manuscript, written around 600, is at the British Library. While Passions in this tradition are full of fantastic elements, prompting the condemnation by Pope Gelasius, they describe a completely different person than the Arian bishop and portray him as a real individual.
After the condemnation by Pope Gelasius, a canonical version of the story appeared, accepted and promoted by the church, but the apocryphal version remained significant, most notably in the Western tradition. The canonical version started circulating in the sixth century, and the oldest surviving version is in the encomium composed by Andrea, Archbishop of Crete, from the seventh century.
Andrea’s version takes place during the persecution of Diocletian. According to this account, St. George lived in Palestine, but was born of Cappadocian parents. At court, the saint sees the harm done to Christians, and he is moved to give his possessions away and proclaim his faith in God. He then faces numerous forms of torture such as being placed on a wheel with knives, kept in a kiln for three days, and forced to wear heated iron boots, but he is not harmed. The guards and empress are converted by his miraculous resistance to punishment.
St. George then battles with the magician Athanasius, and the saint drinks poison provided by the magician without harm. He also raises a dead man back to life. Athanasius converts to Christianity, and he and the resurrected man are executed. On St. George’s last night on earth, he receives a vision foretelling his death, and he performs numerous miracles for those who visit him.
On his last day, Diocletian tries to persuade St. George to renounce Christianity and offers him half of his kingdom. St. George surprisingly declares he is ready to worship the Roman gods. When he enters the temple and makes the sign of the cross, the idols proclaim that St. George worships the true God, and the statues fall to the ground, breaking into pieces.
The empress then proclaims her secret faith in Christ and is executed. Finally, St. George is beheaded, which marks the end of the Passion.
Though his background and dates vary in nearly every account, they all recount that he was in the Roman army, defied the emperor’s order to persecute Christians, and thus, was tortured and martyred. The widespread collaboration of these basic facts from different traditions of Passions and church inscriptions point to a real St. George as the origin of the saint’s story.
What about the dragon story? For eight hundred years, St. George had no dragon, and most likely, the dragon developed from the emperor who killed St. George. In the first Passions of St. George, the emperor who martyred St. George was called a dragon. Moreover, in early depictions of the saint, found in present-day Georgia, he was killing a man, not a dragon.
From this point, the image shifted from the emperor, a very specific image of evil, to a dragon, a more general image of the devil and evil. Artists probably drew on older traditions of St. Michael, St. Theodore, and other saints who were depicted killing a dragon-like devil.
The first image of St. George killing a dragon dates from the early eleventh century and is located in the Church of St. Barbara, Soganli Valley, Cappadocia. A coin from the reign of Roger I, prince of Antioch from 1112 to 1119, also depicts St. George on horseback attacking a dragon, providing the first evidence of Crusader knowledge of St. George as a dragon-slayer.
From the visual presentation, the dragon story developed, borrowing from ancient pagan stories. Of all the ancient legends, St. George is most often associated with the Greek legend of Perseus and Andromeda.
In that story, Poseidon sends a sea monster to attack the kingdom of Ethiopia. To pacify the monster, Andromeda, the king’s daughter, is offered as a sacrifice. Perseus kills the sea monster, saves Andromeda, and then marries her.
The similarities between St. George and Perseus are numerous with both killing a monster terrorizing society and saving a princess. The two legends are also connected geographically. St. George’s cult was centered at Lydda, not far from the traditional place where Perseus battled with the monster at modern day Jaffa.
To claim St. George is only a Christianized version of these ancient myths would be a gross overstatement. The gap of eight hundred years between the martyr St. George and the dragon-slayer St. George suggests that the saint was more than a mythical figure adopted by Christians, but some elements of St. George’s battle with the dragon might have been borrowed from pagan legends.
The earliest written account of the dragon story is an eleventh-century Georgian manuscript. The story was popularized, however, when the dragon story was included in the medieval bestseller, Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea, written around 1266. From that point forward, St. George had a dragon in the public imagination. Next time, you come across the story of a knight saving a princess from a dragon remember the real martyr who inspired that story and how he stood up to an emperor for his faith and was martyred as a result.
(I have spent the last 10 years studying St. George in the English tradition with particular attention to how his feast day became a nationalistic holiday, and here’s a shameless plug … I recently released a book based on my findings. If you’re interesting in medieval religious history (first two-thirds of the book) or English nationalism (last third of the book), you might want to check it out. It’s an academic work based on my dissertation and heavily footnoted, but accessible to the average reader. It’s available as a paperback and a kindle edition. If you have Amazon Prime and a kindle device, you can borrow it for FREE through Amazon’s lending library.)