I had always assumed that St George was English. After all, he is the patron Saint of England and the English flag is the St George Cross. He apparently rode at the head of a group of Crusaders on their way to wreak havoc somewhere.
It was not until I started travelling that I began to notice images of St George in numerous countries other than England. St George also patronises lots of other places and organisations. He is the patron saint of Russia, Georgia (Caucasus), Ethiopia, Greece, Lithuania, Portugal and Venice, and other countries. The list varies.
St George is apparently one of the most venerated saints in many religions, including Catholicism, Anglican, Orthodox, East Syrian and Miaphysite Churches. He may, or may not have been born in Cappadocia, and was possibly a member of the Praetorian Guard for the Roman Emperor Diocletian.
Diocletian had St George executed in AD303 for refusing to recant the Christian faith.
Although St George is mythologised in the story of him slaying the dragon, the dragon was only recorded in the 11th century. He was quite obviously much more than a dragon slayer.
I do enjoy looking at the dragons, and the variation of dragons is vast. In fact it really was the dragons which initially caught my interest. Were the artists influenced by their culture and the period during which they lived? Or were they having a Hieronymus Bosch moment? Were there dragons about, on which the artists based their images? I have yet to come to any conclusion.
My hunting ground for St George is generally in churches and galleries, although not exclusively. A recent stroll around Stockholm produced a most interesting sculpture, with a very fearsome dragon.
A visit to the Italian Chapel in Lamb Holm, Orkney Islands, constructed by Italian POW’s during WWII, yielded a war memorial sculpture of St George slaying a less than fearsome looking dragon.
The Cathedral of the Assumption (Dormiton Cathedral) in the Kremlin in Moscow has one of the oldest icons, the 12th century red clothed St George, which came from Novgorod
The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow contains numerous images and icons of St George, including what is believed to be the oldest known icon, from around 1030AD. A stone relief carving of St George slaying the dragon, adorns the entry to the Tretyakov Gallery.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg is a glorious confection. On a dull day it resembles an extremely decorative gingerbread castle. When the sun is shining, it resembles a brightly coloured marzipan creation. Mosaic portraits of saints, including St George adorn parts of the exterior.
St George could not be ignored in Georgia. He was everywhere. Murals, icons and glittering in gold atop a pole. There were several murals depicting St George slaying Diocletian, who looked like a very colourful dragon. Artists revenge.
Ethiopia is pretty big on St George. He is the patron saint of the country and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and appears frequently in religious art and iconography. I found images in Addis Ababa, Lake Tana, Aksum and Lalibela. One of the 11 rock hewn monolithic churches in Lalibela, Bet Giyorgis is dedicated to St George.
Religious art and iconography in Ethiopia is joyful and a riot of colour. The dragon generally has a black devil sitting on it somewhere. A dragon, in the Middle Ages was often used to represent the devil, so adding a devil to the image is perhaps visually reinforcing the battle of good against evil.
Stone carved St George slaying the dragon are fairly common above church entrances in Sicily.
The 9th century Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo was not somewhere I expected to find a St George slaying his dragon. Ben Ezra was constructed on the site of a 4th century Coptic place of worship, El Shamieen, but only a shell of the church remained.
The St George legend came to Australia with the British in 1788. After colonisation, the British in Australia used St George’s name for churches, suburbs, streets, rivers and regions in the Colony. It may be time to change the names of rivers and regions back to the names used by the First People. Clearly St George was not part of their story.
St George’s Cathedral in Perth, WA has a most interesting modern sculpture, titled Ascalon. “Ascalon was the name of St George’s lance in mediaeval romances, and is derived from the city of Ashkelon in Israel.”
In case it is not immediately apparent that this sculpture depicts St George slaying the dragon, the description plaque on the sculpture reads “The angled pole, white billow and black base are reminiscent of the lance of St George, the cloak and steed of St George and the defeated body of the dragon.”
St George has, in today’s terms “huge market penetration and brand recognition” in numerous parts of the world. I do not recall any other Saint having such recognition. I like to think the dragon assisted. Without the dragon, St George may have remained a local saint, confined to the areas he inhabited.