Listen, lords, in bower and hall,
I sing the wonderous birth
Of brave St. George, whose valorous arm
Rid monsters from the earth-“The Birth of St. George” as recorded by Thomas Percy in Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765)
St. George is celebrated across Europe, hailed as a religious martyr, dragon-slayer, and knight in shining armor. Wait…dragon slayer?! That’s right, George was the epitome of Medieval hunk: one of the few knights who successfully tamed and slayed a dragon while rescuing a princess.
George was born in Cappadocia (present-day Turkey), sometime in the third century. Raised a Christian, he became a soldier in the Roman army. While sources of his legend conflict, the earliest full text – a Greek legend translated into Syriac around 600 CE – places George squarely in 299 to 303 CE, when Diocletian demanded religious purification of his empire by forbidding Christians to serve in the bureaucracy and military. One of Diocletian’s advisors, Galerias, wanted further action; the two leaders consulted the oracle of Apollo at Didyma, whose garbled sayings convinced them to implement a policy of complete persecution. Churches were destroyed, texts and scriptures burned, and Edicts against Christians prohibited their worship. Executions soon followed.
According to this early version, George was among those executed. He was decapitated on April 23, 303, before the walls of Nicomedia. Yet his suffering inspired Diocletian’s wife, Empress Alexandra of Rome, to become a Christian – for which she, too, died. Later versions of the story expand on George’s death and life, stating that he suffered over twenty different forms of torture.
These expansions tell us more about the times in which they were written than the actual life of St. George. The dragon-slayer – and knighthood – part was added in the late Medieval period, between the 11th and 13th centuries. In The Golden Legend (1275) by Jacobus de Voragine, Archibishop of Genoa, George visited the city of Silene, where a dragon poisoned people with his breath and demanded animal sacrifices every two days in exchange for not hurting people. Running out of animals, the people turned to human sacrifices, establishing a lottery to choose who should be given to the dragon. Around the time George arrived, the lottery fell on the king’s daughter. The king was distraught, begging to save his daughter, but he was denied. George encountered the princess soon after she had been taken to the pond where the dragon lived. Hearing her story, George invoked Jesus Christ and, drawing his sword, injured and captured the dragon. George and the princess took the dragon to Silene, and George slayed the dragon in exchange for the people converting to Christianity. According to de Voragine, a church was established in Silene where, to that date, a fountain of living water healed all who drank from it.
Despite being dead for almost a thousand years, George had officially reached the Medieval equivalent of Hollywood Hunk status. He became a popular patron saint, commemorated around the world on April 23. By 1552, all saints’ banners other than George’s – a red cross on a white flag – had been abolished in England, denoting how high George had risen in their religious and cultural beliefs. Becoming a national saint, George’s name was invoked in many battles, shrines were established, and he became a model of chivalry and Medieval romance. Today, he remains the patron saint of England (despite never having been near England in his lifetime), with his banner forming England’s national flag and featured within the Union Flag. He is also the patron saint and protector of the royal family. Other countries, such as Ethiopia, Georgia, Malta, and Gozo, highly venerate St. George.
This story is more about the beliefs of Medieval Christians than the life of St. George. In medieval icons, George was depicted as a Roman cavalryman slaying the dragon, an image evoked as the precursor of the Medieval knight in shining armor and upholder of chivalry. This image persisted through the Renaissance and into modern times, but it does have some variations. In particular, our sketch of St. George slaying the dragon depicts George standing on top of the dragon, sticking a sword through the dragon’s eye. George is entirely naked (though thoughtfully concealed by a magical floating cloth), holding only his scabbard. It evokes both the sketches of Raphael’s version (which were done in a slightly similar manner and color), but is more modern and possibly with Greco-Roman influences in George’s form. While we await engaging an expert to tell us more, it does hint at intriguing possibilities about the age and origin of the sketch. It also provides a window into how the saints’ stories – and images – were utilized by the cultures that created them.
This painting is part of the C. Perry Snell collection at the Kentucky Museum, object ID 1929.5.98. If you would like to support this collection, please consider adopting this painting through a gift of $250 to the Adopt-an-Artifact program.