Around the year 660 B.C. a navigator named Byzas, called ‘son of Neptune’, founded the pre-Christian city of Byzantium, at the eastern-most point of the European Mediterranean coast, where the waters of the Bosphorus divide Europe from Asia. On this site, nearly a thousand years later, Constantine the Great, liberator and protector of the followers of Christ, founded a new capital city for the Roman Empire. After five years of building, the ‘Second Rome’ was formally consecrated as Constantinople, in the year A.D.330. Seven years later, after many years of overt support of Christian faith and practice, Constantine was baptised a Christian on his death-bed.

These two seminal events in the 4th century A.D. mark the creation of a Christian Roman Empire that persisted more than a thousand years, known today in Western history as the Byzantine Empire. Western bias and prejudice usually depicts this Empire as a decadent remnant of the old Roman Empire, while maintaining that the essence of that old Empire continued in the Holy Roman Empire of the West. This is an inversion of reality. The Holy Roman Empire was a sham from its very beginning, when Pope
 Leo II clapped the crown on the head of Charlemagne and hailed him as Caesar and Augustus, the first Holy Roman Emperor. His Empire did not outlast has son and successor, Louis the Pious. It simply fell apart into its various feudal fragments, and thereafter the title of Holy Roman Emperor was claimed and auctioned around, to be taken by the strongest or highest bidder. It was finally extinguished when its last possessor, the Austrian Emperor Francis II, dissolved the succession in 1806, thus thwarting the ambitious Napoleon in his final bid for supreme Imperial grandeur.

The genuine Christian Roman Empire was that which for more a thousand years was ruled by the Byzantine Roman Emperors from the New Rome at Constantinople, until the final storming and sack of Constantinople by the triumphant Turks in 1453. This Empire of a thousand years was no decadent remnant of former Roman might. It was in fact the political and cultural embodiment of Christian Roman civilisation until well into the second millennium. It reached its peak of glory in the 6th century, under Justinian, when, despite the loss of the north western provinces of Empire, its wealth and power surpassed all previous achievement of Roman might and culture. Even as late as the 11th century it still controlled vast areas of the original Roman Empire around the Eastern and Central Mediterranean. And culturally it was vigorous well into the 12th and 13th centuries.

The real turning point in its fortunes came with the Great Schism of 1054, when the Roman Church finally decided to link its fortunes with those of the rising Germanic West. From that time on, Byzantium’s role as custodian of Christian faith and values was progressively taken over by the emergent nations of Western Europe. But that role and responsibility was not finally ceded to the West until the last Emperor of Roman Byzantium died with the last remnants of his Empire, in the horrific slaughter which accompanied the final assault of the Turks against the walls of Constantinople.

This then was the Imperial Byzantine Roman civilisation within which the cult of St. George, still today acclaimed as ‘The Great Martyr’ of the Eastern Church, was first to appear. We know little of its origins. One tradition suggests that the canonisation of the saint may have been decided and declared at the famous Council of Arles, in 314[1] presided over by Constantine in an attempt to settle the problem of the Donatist heresy. Even stronger traditions talk of Constantine having erected a church in honour of St. George at Lydda, the birthplace of the saint, on the road from Jaffa to Jerusalem.

It certainly seems likely that St. George was martyred soon after the year 303, when the last wave of persecution of the Christians swept the Empire, after Diocletian had issued his infamous edicts against the Christians and their Church. This was a bare fifty years before Christianity became the official religion of the Empire under Constantine’s successors.

Diocletian’s edicts decreed that all Christian churches should be demolished to their foundations. Secret assembly for the purpose of worship was to be punished by death. Bishops and priests were ordered under pain of death to deliver all sacred books to the magistrates, to be publicly burned. All church property was confiscated. Christians of liberal birth were declared incapable of holding honours or employment. Slaves were for ever deprived of the possibility of freedom. All Christians were put outside the protection of the law.

These edicts against the Christians were applied with varying degrees of severity in the different provinces of the Empire. At first Diocletian was, as Gibbon puts it, “averse to the effusion of blood”,[2] but some, like his lieutenant and successor Galerius, proposed that every one refusing to offer sacrifice to the gods should immediately be burned alive. It has to be remembered that the Emperor himself was deemed to be divine. The ritual burning of incense before the Emperor’s shrine was equivalent to making the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute to the Swastika flag in Nazi Germany. Persistent public refusal could lead to a painful and prolonged death.

It is difficult to estimate the scale of the slaughter over the ten years of the Diocletian persecutions. Christian historians like Eusebius may have exaggerated the number of victims, and the ferocity of the tortures they suffered. Gibbon, on the other hand, always anxious to minimise the sufferings of Christians and to exaggerate their faults, estimates that in the whole ten years there may have been only an “annual consumption of one hundred and fifty martyrs”. But this cautious and somewhat callous estimate explicitly excludes some contemporary records of massive killings, like that at Thebais in Egypt where according to Eusebius from ten to one hundred persons had frequently suffered martyrdom on one day.[3]

Apparently it also excludes incidents such as the one which Gibbon tells about a small Phrygian town. With typical pretence of detached impartiality, he says this incident is “related with so many circumstances of variety and improbability that it serves rather to excite than to satisfy our curiosity”. It appears that the magistrates and most of the people of this town had embraced the Christian faith. A numerous detachment of legionaries was sent to apprehend them, upon which the citizens took refuge in the local church. Gibbon records that they refused to come out, whereupon, he relates, “the soldiers, provoked by their obstinate refusal, set fire to the building on all sides, and consumed, by this extraordinary kind of martyrdom, a great number of Phrygians, with their wives and children”.

Despite Gibbon’s attempts to play down these events, it is evident that many thousands of Christian martyrs perished during that terrible persecution. It seems probable that one of them was St. George of Lydda. Elsewhere Gibbon and others with similar persuasion have expressed scepticism about the sanctity of St. George, largely on the grounds that there are no explicit contemporary records of his particular martyrdom. But with so many thousands of Christian deaths at this time, it is hardly to be expected that each would have been meticulously recorded in the midst of the frenzy of slaughter. There are many names in the Christian martyrologies relating to martyrs of this period, but few are documented in any detail. Most of them went to their deaths in complete anonymity.

References to St. George in early martyrologies and commentaries are sufficient to establish him as a recognised saint soon after the Diocletian persecution. His name does not appear in the Syriac Martyrology, but there is a significant gap in the manuscript of this document in the listing under April 24th, immediately after the name Anthimus, who is known to have been commonly associated with St. George. He is listed under April 23, 24 and 25 in the so called Martyrology of St. Jerome, judged by some to be the earliest martyrology of the Christian Church. Eusebius, contemporary chronicler of the Diocletian persecution, does not list the name George; but after referring to the “devoted and faithful Dorotheus”, he says, “we may also add Gorgonius, equally celebrated with him”. In Syriac writing, George and Gorgon are closely similar, so it is quite possible that Eusebius was here referring to St. George. 
But the most explicit record in the early centuries is the declaration of Pope Gelasius in his famous canon against heretical ‘Acts of the Saints’ (494), describing St. George as

one of the sacred martyrs whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose deeds are known only to God.

If St. George was in fact one of the Diocletian martyrs, then his death took place only a few years before Constantine established his court in Constantinople, at the heart of the Eastern provinces of the Empire. The Saint’s martyrdom would have been fresh in the memories of the inhabitants of Palestine and nearby provinces, so Constantine may well have erected a church to his honour in Lydda. That he did so was a very old tradition, being recorded in two ‘encomiums’ of St. George in Coptic, attributed to Theodosius Bishop of Jerusalem and Theodotus Bishop of Ancyra in Galatia, both certainly written before the middle of the 6th century[4].

In any case, there is no doubt that many other churches were built in honour of the Saint in the provinces of the Eastern Roman Empire. Archaeologists of the 19th century did valuable work in recording inscriptions in Greek from old buildings and ruins in the Middle East, the heart of that Empire. Two of these, found in the ruins of old churches in the Hauran (biblical Bashan) district of Palestine, just east of the River Jordan, give us direct evidence of very early dedications to St. George.

These inscriptions have been recorded and discussed by several scholars, and there are differences of interpretation as regards the dates to be attributed to them. The account presented here follows the interpretation put forward by 
Rev. George T. Stokes in the Contemporary Review.[5]

Both of the inscriptions were found by Burckhardt,[6] and subsequently listed in Boeck’s Corpus Inscrip. Graec.[7] The first of these, Boeckh 8608, was found at Shaka. According to the translation given by Stokes, it runs:

A church of the holy Victorious Martyr, George, and of the Holy Men (Martyrs) with him, was built from the foundations with the offerings of Bishop Tiberinus. But the care of Georgius and Sergius erected the sanctuary, and the addition to the temple in the year 263

When interpreting “the year 263”, it must be remembered that our modern universal system of dating in terms of years before and after the birth of Christ was not introduced during the first millenium. There was indeed no universal system. Depending on the locality, events were dated within ‘eras’ or ‘epochs’ named after prominent individuals or events of importance within that area, in much the same way as dates in England were until quite recently recorded as years of the reign of the current English monarch. In the Hauran two epochs were in popular use in the fourth and fifth centuries, that of Pompey and that of Bostra. The former dated from 64 B.C., the latter from A.D.104, when Trajan engaged in such extensive public works as to constitute an ‘era’ in local history.

Computation of “the year 263” according to the era of Pompey gives a date of A.D. 199, which seems much too early to be acceptable. Computation according to the Bostraean era gives A.D. 367 as the date of the addition to the temple, and implies that the sanctuary was originally founded at a somewhat earlier date.

The second of the two inscriptions, Boeckh No. 8627, relates to a church in the Hauran at Edhra, (biblical Edrei), 30 miles west of Shaka. According to the translation given by Stokes, it runs:

The abode of demons has become a house of God. 
A saving light has shone forth where darkness did conceal. Where there were idol sacrifices there are now choirs of angels. Where God was provoked now God is propitiated.  A certain man, a lover of Christ — Joannes, the son of Diomedes from his own funds offered a gift to God; an edifice worthy to be seen; placing in this the esteemed relic of the gloriously victorious holy martyr George, who appeared to Joannes himself, not in a vision, but manifestly, in the year 9 of the year 410

In the case of this inscription, if we take “the year 410” as relating to the era of Pompey, we get A.D. 346 as the date of the inscription. If it relates to the era of Bostra, we get A.D.514.

Stokes argues convincingly that in this case the date relates to the era of Pompey. He suggests that the ‘year 9’ in which Joannes erected the church must have been the 9th year of the reigning sovereign. A.D.514 was the 23rd year of the Emperor Anastatius I , which does not conform with the ‘year 9′ of the inscription. On the other hand, the year A.D. 346 was in fact the 9th year of the joint reign of the sons of Constantine the Great, Constantius and Constans, which conforms precisely with the
’year 9’ of the inscription.

He also points out that A.D. 514 is incompatible with the reference to an “abode of demons”, which implies that this site was recently occupied by a pagan temple. It seems virtually impossible that in A.D. 514 there could still have been a pagan church in Edhra, tolerated by both State and Church, in the neighbourhood of Antioch and Damascus. In A.D. 346, however, paganism was still active in that area, indeed still fighting back against the Christian faith. There are reliable records of destruction of pagan temples precisely at this time, as for example the programme of temple-destruction recorded as carried out by Mark of Arethusa.

According to Wallis-Budge,[8] the ruins of the Edhra church show that when complete it must have been large and handsome. De Vogue, cited by Wallis-Budge, states that it was one of the two finest Christian buildings in the Hauran: he gives a full description of the church, with architectural plans, in his “Syrie Central-Architecture”.

Most Eastern and Western traditions declare that the burial place of St. George was Lydda, Lod of the Old Testament, and currently the site of Jerusalem’s Lod airport. Certainly there was a great church dedicated to St. George in existence there at the time of the first Crusade, and equally certainly there was a Christian community there as early as the first century, when St. Peter the Apostle “came down also to the saints which dwelt at Lydda”. Under Constantine the Great it became the seat of a Bishop. Its name was changed to Diospolis, but the bishop was always known as ‘Bishop of Lydda’.

The importance of this city to the Church during the century after Constantine the Great is shown by the fact that the Council which tried Pelagius met there in 415. Antoninus, who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land about one hundred years later, (514), speaks of Diospolis (Lydda) as the city “in which rests St. George the Martyr”. The records of Antoninus and other pilgrims provide clear evidence that in the 6th and 7th centuries a cult of St. George was strongly established at Lydda. In his book “Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades”, Wilkinson[9] lists and translates the records of visits of many such pilgrims to the shrine of St. George, including Theodosius (c 518), Arculf (c 680), Epiphananius (7th c) and Willibald, (c 725). These records, coupled with the proven existence of the earlier churches dedicated to St. George in the nearby district of Hauran, suggest that there must have been a church at Lydda dedicated to the Saint, well before the 5th century.

According to Wallis-Budge, a church was either rebuilt or a new one founded at Lydda in the 6th century, perhaps by Justinian, but both it and the tomb of the Saint were wrecked by the Persians a century later. Another rebuilt church here was destroyed by the mad Caliph Hakim Biamrillah, and yet another was destroyed by the Arabs when the Crusaders attacked the city in the First Crusade. The victorious Christians rebuilt this, but once again it was later destroyed by Saladin: its ruins are still to be seen there. Peter Heylyn[10] records many details of the complex history of this site, and adds that at nearby Ramleh there was yet another church dedicated to the Saint.

The Byzantine cult of St. George in these early centuries was however by no means confined to Syria and Palestine. 
 A biography of St. Theodore of Sykeon, written soon after his death by his disciple Georgios,[11] provides valuable insights into the development of the cult of St. George in Asia Minor. St. Theodore was born in the Galatian town of Sykeon, half way between Constantinople and Ancyra (modern Ankara), during the reign of Justinian (527-578). When he was 6 years old, his mother had planned to take him to Constantinople, but after a dream in which St. George appeared, she decided to stay in Sykeon, where Theodore studied the scriptures in the monastery church of St. George. At the age of 14 he left home to live in a cave close to the monastery, and eventually, at the age of 18 he was formally accepted there as a priest.

St. Theodore was especially devoted to St. George, and did much to propagate and popularise his cult. He was endowed with the gifts of prophecy and miraculous healing, and as his fame as a holy man grew, so also did that of St. George, and of the church and monastery of St. George at Sykeon. The status of the church was even more enhanced when Theodore deposited there some relics of St. George, which he had acquired from the church of St. George in Germia, another city in Asia Minor. Shortly before Theodore died in AD 613, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius visited him in the monastery of St. George at Sykeon. Such circumstantial detail, as related by the contemporary scribe Georgios, leaves no doubt that the cult of St. George was well established in Asia Minor by the 6th century, and that it was considerably enhanced by the fame and sanctity of his devotee, St. Theodore of Sykeon.

In the second half of the first millenium many more churches were dedicated to St. George throughout the Roman Byzantine Empire. According to Wallis-Budge and Heylyn, Procopius says that Justinian built a church to St. George at Bizania (Leontopolis) in Armenia, dated by Heylyn as 527.
 Heylin mentions others on the island of Mitylene, and at Didymotichum in Thrace. Elsewhere in Greece, at Athos, the Holy Mountain, one of the monasteries, called Zographou, is dedicated to St. George. There is a charming story about this, which ties in with the chequered history of the churches at Lydda. According to tradition, this monastery was founded in the time of the Emperor Leo the Wise (886-911), by three brothers who came from a town close to the border of Albania and Yugoslavia. When they had built the monastery, they were unable to decide on the dedication. One wanted to dedicate it to the Holy Virgin, one to St. Nicholas, the third to St. George. To settle the matter, they placed in the church a blank wooden panel, and locked the doors. They then prayed all night that God would show them which saint should be chosen, by causing to appear on the panel, ‘without hands’, the icon of that saint. In the morning they found an icon of St. George painted on the panel. The monastery was of course dedicated to St. George, and was called Zographou, meaning ‘without hands’. [12]

At the very same time as this was happening in Athos, monks at the monastery of St. George at the village of Phanuel, near Lydda, found that the face of their own icon had disappeared They were told that it had been transported to Athos. They set out from Phanuel, travelled from Palestine to Athos, and on arrival at the monastery of Zographou they found the face of their own icon. As a result, they settled there, thus escaping the ravages of the mad Caliph Hakim, who around the year 1000 destroyed not only the great church of St. George at Lydda, but also the church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. This kind of traditional story may well cause sceptical eyebrows to be raised, but if it is not true, how do we explain the name of the monastery, still known today as Zographou, ‘without hands’?

This charming story of the Zographou icon brings us to one of the most important sources of our knowledge concerning the cult of St. George in the Byzantine Empire. This is the extraordinary proliferation of icons of St. George throughout the Empire. Unfortunately few icons of any kind from the earlier centuries survived the 8th century ravages of the iconoclasts in Metropolitan Byzantium, but by good fortune there were some outlying parts of the Empire which had earlier been overrun by the Moslems, thus being cut off from Imperial control. Monasteries in those areas were generally tolerated by the Moslems, and were in effect protected from the excesses of the Iconoclasts. The most important was the Monastery of 
St. Catherine in Sinai, near the southern tip of the peninsula.

For many centuries the precious collection of icons stored there was virtually unknown outside the monastery, but quite recently these treasures have been critically examined and their beauty has been revealed to the world.

Outstanding among the Sinai masterpieces are three which were executed in the hot wax ‘encaustic’ method. Two of these are dated by Weitzman[13] as belonging to the 6th century and as having come from a Constantinople workshop. By great good fortune, in the context of this study, one of them depicts the Virgin flanked by St. Theodore on her right and St. George on her left.

The Virgin flanked by St Theodore and St George.  Monastery of St Catherine, Sinai.

The heads of all three figures are surrounded by very large golden halos, ringed with dark blue. 
 In contrast to the stern, sunburnt and black-bearded face of St. Theodore, the youthful St. George has a pale, clean shaven face, with a gentle, candid expression, and a dense shock of curly red hair low down on his forehead; characteristics that were to typify his portraits through succeeding centuries. He wears Byzantine court dress, a light red patterned pallium, with a patterned inset square, the tablion, in blue. A cross held in front of his breast, signifying martyrdom, is the only specific iconographic symbol in this picture.

One cannot overstate the importance of this icon as 
evidence for a firmly established cult of St. George only a few lifetimes after the Diocletian persecutions. With life-spans in the middle-east often exceeding the traditionally allotted ‘three score and ten’ years, the painter of this icon could well have been working within the overlapping memories of just four or five of his predecessors. There is good reason to believe that this picture, and those that follow down the centuries, may faithfully describe the actual features of the Saint who gave his life for his faith seventeen centuries ago.

Chap 1 Plate 2
Early 5th century mosaic in the Rotunda of St George, Thessaloniki

This view is supported by the existence of another icon of even earlier date, the early 5th century, a mosaic in the 4th century Rotunda of St. George in Thessaloniki, built by the Emperor Galerius about 306 A.D. and converted into a Christian church early in the 5th century, possible around 430 A.D.  By some unexplained good fortune, the mosaics in this church were not destroyed by the Iconoclasts, despite its proximity to Constantinople. The
 mosaic in question shows a youthful, unbearded figure, with pale face and a thatch of curly hair . There is a no halo, and the features are strikingly similar to those of the 6th century Sinai icon of the Saint. Given the dedication of the church in which it is located, it is reasonable to think that this may well be the very earliest extant icon of St. George, executed within only three or four overlapping lifetimes after his death.

In succeeding centuries the style of the dress and accoutrements of the saint were progressively transformed. Although many post-iconoclast Byzantine icons still depict him in formal dress, he is usually accoutred as a soldier. An early 13th century icon at Sinai, probably commissioned for the Chapel of St. George located on one of the Monastery’s wall towers, shows him wearing a ceremonial chlamys in red, with a blue tablion, but he also wears a sword, and holds both lance and shield.

13th century icon Mount Sinai
Saint George as a Byzantine soldier.  13th century icon from St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

Another 13th century painted icon, in the Byzantine Museum at Athens , [15] shows a still further development. The Saint is still depicted as a clean-shaven young man, with curly red hair, but the ceremonial dress has entirely gone. He is clad in armour, covered by a red cloak, while a large shield leans against him. Unusually, this shield is of Western design, both in its shape and in the heraldic quarters, which it carries. The icon itself also exhibits other unusual features, being carved in fairly heavy wood relief, and showing a profile of the Saint, rather than the full-face presentation which is almost universal in Byzantine icons. It is probably of Macedonian origin.

By the time of the Crusades, the gentle martyr of early tradition had to a large extent been replaced by as the warrior saint. He had indeed become one of the great Byzantine soldier saints, ranking with St. Demetrius and St. Theodore as Protector of the Empire.

St George as a western soldier.  13th century Byzantine Museum, Athens

Undoubtedly this was the image of the Saint which the Byzantines passed on to the warlike Crusaders, and which accounted for the iconography of his cult in the Christian West. They also passed on the same image of the warrior Saint to the warlike Russians, among whom the cult of the Saint flourished exceedingly, as is described in Chapter 3. Despite this trend, some Byzantine icons from later centuries reverted to the image of the gentle martyr, holding only his martyr’s cross. The beautiful mosaic of the Saint in the Church of Christ in Chora, in Constantinople, probably executed as late as the 13th-14th century, is a noteworthy example of this genre.

Chapter 1 Plate 5
St George the Martyr. 13th cent Byzantine mosaic in outer narthex of the church at Chora (Kariye), Istanbul

Like the 5th century Thessalonica mosaic, this one also is strikingly similar in features to the 6th century Sinai icon, leaving little doubt as to the identity of the martyr saint. There are also some similar late examples of the gentle martyr-saint when he appears as one of the supporting figures in the decorative margin or frame of an icon primarily dedicated to another saint. It seems that in such cases a simple half length figure carrying the martyr’s cross was often preferred to the more complex martial representation, so that the artist could more conveniently fit the figure into the margin of the frame.

An exception to this treatment is however to be found in the magnificent 11th century icon with full length figure of
 St. Michael, which is one of the great treasures of the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice .

Chap 1 Plate 6 alt
Enamel icon of St Michael in St Mark’s Basilica, Venice, with St George and St Procopius in military dress.

This superb enamelled pendant icon, about 18in by 14in, has a finely detailed margin, with four pairs of warrior saints in tall oval plaques on the sides. All of these saints are presented in full length, clad in elaborate military costume. They have plate armour with knotted sash, a coat of mail reaching to the knees, patterned hose, high patterned boots, a chlamys, a lance and a shield. St. George is paired with St. Procopius, both of them being clean-shaven, with a thick shock of hair low over the forehead. Each of the eight saints is identified by name.[16]

In the the following icons , the figure of St. George is surrounded by a narrative cycle of scenes from his life, beginning with the distribution of his goods to the poor, showing him subjected to horrible tortures, and ending with his burial. This is a feature often found in Byzantine icons of the Saint, and in view of our almost total ignorance of his origins and even of his martyrdom, we have to ask how these details of his life arose? The answer lies in the famous ‘Acts of St. George’ which appeared around the 5th or 6th century, and which rapidly spread throughout Christendom, East and West alike.

Chapter 1 Pl 6001
The tortures of St George from 18th cent. Ethiopian ‘Acts of St George. Brit Mus MS Orient 715 (from Wallis-Budge)

There have been extensive searches for the origins of these Acts, and exhaustive analyses of their contents, in attempts to determine their origins, and their relevance to the true history of the Saint. Wallis-Budge, Thurston and Delahaye [17] all give excellent summaries of the researches that have been carried out. Thurston lists many versions of the Acts, including those in Syriac, Ethiopic, Coptic, Latin, High German, Anglo-Saxon, and Old Italian. According to Wallis-Budge, the four principal versions of the Martyrdom of St. George are those written around the 6th and 7th centuries in Syriac, Coptic, Arabic and Ethiopic. In his view these are all translations of an earlier version in Greek, but the original Greek manuscript has disappeared, the earliest Greek version extant being the 10th century script of Simeon Metaphrastes, published by Papenbrock in Acta Sanctorum. [18]

Chapter 1 Pl 7 alt002
The tortures of St George
Chapter 1 Pl 7001
The tortures of St George

It is impossible to list here all the details of the wonderful fictions listed in these ‘Acts of St. George’. Although a common thread runs through all of them, they vary quite a lot in detail, and in the number of tortures and miracles and other events described. The following brief summary gives a rough idea of the kind of fantasies which later formed the basis for the embellishment of so many icons of St. George, in both East and West.

The name of the king under whom the Saint suffered in these stories was Dadianus. Angered by the spread of Christianity through his kingdom, he summoned all the governors of the world, seventy in all, to a council at which there was a display of all the instruments of torture to be used upon the Christians. Dismayed by this terrible prospect, the Christians are cowed, and three years pass before any of them dares to declare his faith. At last however the soldier George presents himself. He denounces the idolatry of the governors, makes his profession of faith, and submits to his martyrdom. A sequence of four episodes, called ‘passions’ ensues: at the end of each of the first three George dies, but is miraculously restored to life. Only after the fourth episode, seven years later, does the Martyr finally succumb and go to his heavenly reward.

The tortures include every conceivable physical abuse that the writers could imagine: flogging with leather whips by four companies of soldiers, impalement on sixty sharp stakes, boiling in a cauldron, beating out his brains with nailed cudgels, with a finale of rolling a stone pillar across his stomach to keep him quiet until the next morning. During the night, the Saint is visited by Our Lord and is told that he will die and be raised to life again three times before joining Him in Heaven. The next morning the tortures start again, but this time Dadianus calls in a magician, Athanasius, to pit against the Saint. But George prevails, and Athanasius is converted and baptised. George is then broken on the wheel, and his body is divided into ten pieces. Dadianus, called in these accounts ‘the Dragon of the Abyss’, has George’s bones thrown into a dry pit outside the city, and then goes off to dinner.

Chapter 1 Pl 7 alt001
The tortures of St George

An earthquake brings in St. Michael to collect the bones of the Saint and to raise him to life. The revived Saint goes off to confront the council of governors, some of whom are converted by the sight of him alive once more, and are duly executed. Dadianus is not among them. He thinks up all kinds of new tortures; molten lead, nails, and a great stone into which the Saint’s head is fixed like a peg, and then rolled downhill. That night the Martyr is again visited by Our Lord, who repeats his promises. Next morning the action restarts, and among other things St. George is sawn in two and dies for the second time. His remains are melted down with lead, buried, and duly revived for a second time by the Angel Zalathiel.

There is now an interlude during which the Saint performs several miracles and good deeds for various visitors. He resuscitates a dead ox, raises to life the bones from an old tomb, and cures the blind child of a poor widow. He frees prisoners from their jails, liberates slaves, and distributes
 his goods among the poor. But Dadianus, again called “the 
Dragon of the Abyss”, sees what is going on, and restarts the tortures. This time the Saint is put to death by fire, and his remains are cast onto a remote mountain. He is restored to life, and baptises more converts who are duly executed. Now Dadianus tries to cajole the Saint. He begs his forgiveness, and introduces him into the bed-chamber of Queen Alexandra. Instead of misbehaving, George spends the night on theological discussion, and converts the Queen to his faith. Next day, the idols are destroyed, Alexandra declares her faith, St. George is finally killed, and Datian with his 69 governors and their five thousand servants are destroyed by fire from heaven.

Only the most credulous could have accepted this farrago of nonsense as a true account of the ‘Acts’ of the Saint, but nevertheless it was felt in some quarters that Acts such as these were potentially dangerous to the faithful. In 494 Pope Gelasius condemned various extravagant and distorted narratives, which were being circulated about the Saint at that time, as having been written by heretics. Although Rome had dwindled in political importance, it was still the headquarters of the Head of the Church, the Bishop of Rome, who until the end of the millenium retained jurisdiction over all the other Bishops and Patriarchs, Eastern as well as Western, including the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Gelasius’ interdict is doubly significant. Not only does it denounce the extravagance of the “Acts”. It also explicitly acknowledges the sanctity of St. George. Commentators often overlook that it formed part of a quite widespread condemnation of excessive credulity. The condemned excesses in the cult of St. George are linked by Gelasius with similar excesses in the cults of other martyrs and saints, including even some tall stories about the itinerary of St. Peter and the Acts of St. Paul. The tenor of his canon was to warn against ‘heretical’ distortions of all Acts of the Saints. In so doing, he reinforced the Church’s belief in the sanctity of these Saints, including the Great Martyr, St. George.

Gelasius’ pronouncement however appears to have had little effect on the spread of the lurid Acts of St. George through the Empire. Children and child-like people love such gruesome extravagant stories, and Gelasius’ warning and condemnation may even have added a little extra spice to the enjoyment of them. But his theological instincts were probably very sound, for in later centuries these and other similar extravaganzas were to be exploited to deadly effect against the Roman Church by the zealots of the Reformation. Meanwhile, however, they provided wonderful material for decoration of the icons of the faithful, enabling them to embroider their pictures as fancifully as they embroidered their fairy tales.

13th century icon Mount Sinai detail
13th century icon of St George from St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai – detail showing some of the torture scenes.

The series of scenes surrounding the 13th century Sinai icon shown here in exceptionally well executed, and the detail is surprisingly clear. The scenes include the Saint’s confrontation with Dadianus, his condemnation, his horrible tortures, God’s appearance to him in his prison, and several of the alleged miracles listed above. There is however one inconsistency. One of the scenes, just above the lower left hand corner, shows the Saint mounted on a rearing horse over a coiled-up Dragon, while a maiden cowers against a nearby castle wall; a scene which was never described in the apocryphal Acts. Weitzmann states that this scene is apparently a later addition to the icon, presumably having replaced one of the original miracle or torture scenes. This opinion is borne out by the bright golden coloring of the castle tower, which fails to match the subdued tones of buildings elsewhere in the series.

The story of St. George and the Dragon, and the familiar pictures and statues illustrating this story, did not appear in popular hagiography in the West until a Genoese Bishop, Jacopo da Voragine, (c.1230-1297) wrote his famous ‘Golden Legend’ in the second half of the 13th century. His legendary account of St. George’s rescue of the Princess of Silene, and of his liberation of her father’s kingdom from the marauding Dragon, soon challenged the apocryphal Acts as a source of Western iconography of the Saint. Some writers go so far as to suggest that the Golden Legend story itself actually initiated the theme of St. George and the Dragon. There are however some well authenticated precursors which suggest that Voragine’s story had been woven around a basic theme that was already in existence in the Eastern Church long before he put pen to parchment, perhaps even from the time of the Saint’s martyrdom.

As earlier mentioned, Dadianus was repeatedly called “The Dragon of the Abyss” in the Apocryphal Acts which appear to have originated before the fifth century, judging by the date of Canon of Pope Gelasius. There are however some even earlier examples of the dragon theme in connection with St. George. In his book entitled “Das Drachenwunder des heiligen Georg”, Aufhauser [19] lists and illustrates three important icons which suggest that the theme may have been in existence from the earliest centuries after Diocletian, and the detail of two of seems to link them with the cult of St. George.

The earliest of these icons is a Roman gem from Strassburg, dated as from the 3rd or 4th century, depicting a man on horseback with his lance thrust into a dragon lying on its back beneath the horse. In this case however there is no specific indication on the icon itself that this was St. George or indeed that the icon it was even Christian. The second is a circular Roman cloak-clasp also from Strassburg, dated from the 4th to 5th centuries. It depicts the same theme, but in this case the rider’s lance carries a cross at its upper end. The rider wears a halo, and his shock of hair comes down low over his forehead.

Chap 1 pl 8a001
St George and the dragon from a piece of woven silk from Achmin. 4th cent.

The third is a piece of woven silk from Achmin, dated as from the 4th century, and attributed to Byzantine or Coptic origin. There is no horse, but the standing figure is thrusting his lance into the dragon at his feet. This lance bears a cross at its upper end, the figure also bears a martyr’s cross in his left hand. His shock of curly hair surrounds the whole face, and also comes down low on his forehead.

The distinctive features of these last two icons provide a reasonable basis for identifying the figures with St. George, especially in the third case which adds the martyr’s cross to the other attributes. There are of course other early dragon killers in Christian hagiography, including St. Theodore (d. c. 306), St. Hilarion of Gaza (d.372) and St. Mercurial of Forli (d.405). But the iconography of these saints does not correspond to that of the Anhauser icons. Constantine the Great also issued coins showing him standing with his foot on the (human) head of a serpent, but in these he wears the clothes of an Emperor, and carries the imperial orb in his left hand. Only St. George seems to match the attributes of the Anhauser icons, so these icons suggest that the story of St. George and the Dragon was well established well before Bishop Voragine wrote his Golden Legend for the delectation of his readers.

Chapt 1 Sinai
St Theodore and St George 9th or 10th century. St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

This view is confirmed by the existence of some clearly identifiable George and Dragon icons from the Middle East, dated within the 9th and 10th centuries. One example of these is yet another impressive icon, or pair of icons, from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. This is in the form of two Triptych wings depicting St. Theodore and St. George. Weitzmann believes that these panels were made in Palestine, and perhaps actually in Sinai itself, in the 9th or 10th century. They reflect a style quite different from the classical tradition exhibited in the Sinai St. George icons shown in and seem to have much in common with 15th century Western woodcuts. Not only the style, but also the content, exhibits some interesting iconographical features.

Both of the soldier saints are in Roman armour, and are mounted on horses from which they pierce their victims with cross-bearing lances held in their right hands, while they hold the reins in their left hands. Both saints are clearly identified by the names above their heads written in Greek. 
 St. Theodore’s figure exhibits all the familiar features, his stern face being black haired and bearded. St. George’s youthful and serene face also conforms to tradition, being crowned by the familiar shock of curly hair low on his forehead, though the uniformly red-brown colours of the icon prevent us from distinguishing the actual colour of his hair from that of the rest of the composition.

But the most unusual feature of these icons is that while St. Theodore’s lance pierces a dragon or serpent, St. George’s lance pierces the bleeding forehead of an old man seated on the ground. His defeated enemy touches the lance as a gesture of submission. Here evidently we have a transitional design, preceding the pending theme of St. George and the Dragon which is to become the accepted iconography for the Saint. The Dragon here is evidently intended to be King Dadianus, the human “Dragon of the Abyss” described in the Apochryphal Acts, clearly to be identified historically as Diocletian himself.

Close-up of wall painting (fresco) of St. George, St. Barbara Church, Goreme Open Air Museum, Goreme, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cappadocia, Anatolia, Turkey, Asia Minor, Asia
Close-up of wall painting (fresco) of St. George, St. Barbara Church, Goreme Cappadocia

A 10th century Icon of St. George and the Dragon from a wall painting in a rock-church at Guereme in Cappadocia, shows how this theme developed in the Eastern Church. The Saint is in Roman armour, and his cross-bearing sword pierces the head of a coiled serpent-like Dragon under the legs of his white horse. The heads of both horse and rider are surrounded by large halos. Once again St. George’s head is covered with a thick shock of curly red hair. Despite defects due to physical erosion of the painting, this portrayal has a solemnity and an abstract quality which conveys a profound impression of good triumphing over evil. [20]

There is no doubt that the Golden Legend story hastened the iconographical transition from the Martyr Saint to the Warrior Saint, and then added its specific pattern of embellishment to the depiction of this Warrior Saint. The familiar scene of the mounted St. George engaging the Dragon, with the Princess kneeling nearby either in terror or in prayer, while her aged parents look on in horror from their castle walls, soon became the established scene for representations of St. George in Western art. Some Byzantine icons of the St. George and Dragon theme painted in the centuries after the appearance of the Golden Legend also included elements derived from that story Others retained a more formal representation of St. George and the Dragon, without the Princess and her parents on the castle walls. Many superb icons of the Saint based on both designs were to be produced by Byzantine craftsmen even after the Turks had stormed Constantinople, from workshops in Crete and Venice, as well as in the monasteries which continued in their centuries-old pattern of life, virtually unchanged by the political turmoil.

Some other Byzantine icons in these later centuries portrayed an interesting variation on the theme of the horse-rider St. George rescuing a young victim. This showed the Saint with a youth mounted behind him on the crupper of his horse, bearing a cup or goblet. Sometimes the youth is an additional figure in the familiar scene, along with the Princess and her parents, but more often he is alone with the mounted Saint and the Dragon. According to Reau [21] this is a scene of miraculous intervention after the death of the Saint. The story he records is that a young man from Paphlagonia, a province on the shores of the Black Sea, had been captured and taken into slavery. One day he heard someone calling his name, and the saintly rider lifted him up onto the crupper of his horse, riding off to deliver him to his parents.

Another version of this story, based on a Greek text of posthumous miracles of the Saint, is rather more circumstantial regarding detail. According to this account, [22] the scene depicts the Saint’s rescue of the youth from Saracen captors in Crete, and his return to his home on the Greek island of Mytilene, off the coast of Asia Minor. The story goes that at the time of his rescue the youth was serving at the table of his captors, and when whisked away by St. George he carried with him the goblet of drink which he was about to serve to his master. This theme is shown in a 13th century ‘Crusader’ icon now in the British Museum, possibly produced originally for a pilgrim to the shrine of St.George at Lydda.

George British Museum001red
13th century icon showing the ‘coffee boy’.  British Museum

The theme is frequently found in both Greek and Roumanian icons. Reau cites a 16th century fresco in the monastery of Vatopedi at Mount Athos, and a 16th century icon in the museum of Aradea in Roumania. In the latter case the theme is associated with the combat with the Dragon and the rescue of the Princess. Osbert Lancaster, in “Sailing to Byzantium”, [23] describes with typical whimsicality yet another example of this theme in Aegosthea, a village on the road from Daphni to the Gulf of Corinth, “in a tiny whitewashed Byzantine church, dedication unknown, of late but indeterminate date”:

Inside, in addition to the usual fly-blown oleographs and the smell of beeswax candles, are a few faded paintings of no exceptional merit but including, on the north wall, a very charming S. George complete with coffee-boy

The ‘coffee-boy’ never challenged the Princess as a leading figure in the iconography of the Saint in the West: but he did spread to Western legendaries, and is found in a Spanish version of the story, in which the youth was the son of a Catalan knight (see Chapter 6). It is possible that the stories of the deliverance of both the Princess and of the ‘coffee-boy’ both derive in part from the story of St. George freeing prisoners from captivity, in the famous Acts of the Saint.

The production and display of Byzantine icons was by no means confined to the Eastern Empire. One of the most important centres for Byzantine culture in the West was Venice, which for many centuries engaged in a love-hate relationship with Byzantium. After the withdrawal of Byzantine control of northern Italy in the 8th century, Venice had become an independent Dukedom. The rise of Charlemagne in the 9th century greatly worried the Venetian Dukes, the Doges, and they manoeuvred to remain outside the Carolingian Empire, by nominally re-submitting to the overlordship of their old masters, the Byzantines. It was a mutually convenient ‘special relationship’, under which the Venetians were able to enrich themselves by trading with the Mediterranean lands dependent on Constantinople. 
Towards the end of the 11th century the increasing strength of Mediterranean City States like Venice and Pisa and Genoa had forced the Byzantines into treaties of accomodation with these new maritime powers. Venice especially gained considerable trading concessions, including port facilities in Constantinople and special treatment for its citizens. The far-reaching privileges thus secured enabled the Venetians to exert a very considerable influence within the Byzantine Empire.

In 1204 the Crusaders of the West, incensed by Byzantine concessions to Islam, took sides in a complicated quarrel in the ruling family of the Byzantine Empire, and made plans to attack Constantinople. At this point the Venetians decided to throw in their lot with the West. They provided the ships for the Crusaders’ expedition against Constantinople, and took part in the notorious sack and pillage of that great city, bringing back to Venice a wealth of Byzantine treasures. Today these provide one of our richest sources of knowledge of the Byzantine cultural heritage.

Through their close contacts with Byzantine life over many centuries, Venetian craftsmen had also developed their own workshops capable of producing Byzantine artefacts matching in quality those of the metropolis of Constantinople. The basilica of St. Mark, progressively built and rebuilt between the 11th and 14th centuries, was an amalgam of original Byzantine art with local Venetian art inspired by the Byzantines.

During the last phase of Byzantine contraction, the Empire was increasingly dominated ethnically by Greeks. After the final collapse of Empire under the assault of the Turks, in 1454, there was a massive exodus of Greek refugees to the West, and at this time Venice provided refuge for many thousands of Greek exiles. These exiles joined the existing small colony of Greek traders and artisans already in the city, and after some vicissitudes, they were given permission to form, in 1498, an official ‘Greek Confraternity in Venice’. By 1514 they were given permission to build “a church dedicated to the name of St. George, in which they could celebrate the holy liturgy according to the Greek rite”. [24] In 1685, on a site adjacent to this church, a Greek College was built, named the Flanginian College to commemorate the donor Thomas Flanginian of Corfu, who bequeathed his whole estate of 170.000 ducats for this purpose. Today this is the headquarters of the Hellenic Institute of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies in Venice. This Institute, together with the Church of St. George, houses what is perhaps the most important collection of Byzantine icons in the Western world. Among them is a superb 15th-16th century Cretan icon of St. George

Chap 1 Plate 12
St George and the dragon. 15th cent. Cretan icon from the church of San Giorgio dei Greci, Venice

and the Dragon , which fully matches the reputation of the church of ‘San Giorgio dei Greci’ as “the oldest and most glorious Greek Church in the West”. [25] It is highly typical of post-Byzantine representations of St. George, showing the armour-clad Saint mounted on a rearing white horse, thrusting his lance into the Dragon’s mouth. There is no sign of the Princess or of her parents or indeed of the ‘coffee boy’, but the icon contains a feature which also spread to Western iconography of the Saint, viz. the Hand of God emerging from a dark cloud in benediction. This feature may possibly be linked with certain features of the iconography of the Saint in the Kingdom of Georgia, an outpost of Byzantium whose culture considerably influenced Byzantine art; a fascinating theme which will be further discussed in the next chapter.

The collection of Icons in the Hellenic Institute in Venice contains several other representations of St. George. The most important of them, for this study, is the Great Deesis of the Virgin, Prophets, Apostles and Saints, depicting three superimposed tiers of holy people . In the topmost tier, the Virgin, holding the Holy Child Jesus, is centrally placed in a row of Angels, Prophets and Apostles; in the middle tier, St. Michael the Archangel is centrally placed in a row of bishops, monks and clerics; and in the bottom tier, St. George is centrally placed in a row of the blessed martyrs and saints. He is dressed in full armour as a Roman soldier, holding a lance in his right hand, and a large shield in his left. His figure is unusually sturdy and thickset, giving an impression of vigour and virility, but as usual he has the face of a clean-shaven young man, with thick curly hair low down over his forehead.

Chap 1 Plate 13
The Great Deesis of the Virgin, Prophets, Apostles and Saints. 14th cent. Church of San Giorgio dei Greci, Venice

This 14th century Venetian icon clearly exemplifies the central position of St. George in the Eastern Church, as ‘Captain of the Noble Army of Martyrs’, ranking only below Our Lady and the Archangel Michael in the Hierarchy of the Saints.
It was no accident that the Venetian Greeks chose St. George as the Patron of their church in exile. In dedicating it to him they were acknowledging the unique position of the Great Martyr, the Victorious One, in the liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Venetians preserved their links with Byzantine culture long after the Ottoman Turks had conquered the major part of the Byzantine Empire. They held Crete for two centuries after the fall of Constantinople, and protected the culture and religion
 of their Greek subjects in that island until they also finally conceded defeat by the Turks. Today the Byzantine Roman Empire no longer exists in a political sense, but its cultural and spiritual heir, modern Greece, still preserves a strong sense of continuity with the Byzantine past. This is most evident in the Greek Orthodox Church, whose everyday religious activities are intimately shared by the ordinary people of the Greek community, in a way which is almost inconceivable in Western Christendom. Devotion to the Saints, expressed through icons displayed in both church and home, is one of the main channels for lay participation in the life of the Church of the Eastern rite. Icons in the churches are displayed on the walls of the nave, on the iconostasis which separates the congregation from the sanctuary, and sometimes in special shrines within the nave. They are objects of deep veneration through both prayer and physical contact. The most revered of all the Saints are of course Christ and Our Lady, but after them it is St. George who holds the affection of the Greeks. St. Demetrius may be the ‘official’ patron saint of modern Greece, but in churches throughout the mainland and the islands, it is St. George who is accorded pride of place. There is scarcely a church to be found which lacks an icon of the Saint. Whether it is on the iconostasis, or on one of the sidewalls, it always occupies a prominent position of honour.

On a recent cruise around the islands and part of the mainland of Greece, the writer visited many Greek Orthodox churches, always finding St. George in a place of honour. In Rhodes there was an exhibition of 14th to 17th century icons. Most of the hundred or so icons on display were of Christ or Our Lady. There were none of St. Demetrius, but there were as many as eight equestrian paintings of St. George with the dragon. Several of these included the ‘coffee boy’, who in one 17th century icon was an incredibly minute figure perched on the crupper of the horse, holding aloft his goblet.

In Crete St. George is found everywhere. Many churches are dedicated to him in the island, and icons devoted to him are to be found in practically every church, whatever its dedication. One of the most impressive is one of the 13th century wall paintings in the beautifully decorated church of Panaghia Kera, in Kritsa. This shows the equestrian Saint dressed in finely worked, golden coloured chain mail of the period: his golden halo is complemented by the golden rim of a sun-like object behind him, while the hand of God emerges from a cloud in the right hand corner.

Chap 1 Plate 14
St George with the hand of God. 13th cent. wall painting, Panaghia Kera, Kritsa, Crete

Every other male Cretan seems to be named George, and the famous story of St. George appearing on a white horse, to aid the Christians against the infidels, appears in Crete in the context of battles against their Ottoman oppressors in recent centuries. [26]
On the mainland also the Saint is ever present, in ancient Byzantine churches and modern churches alike: some of the most recent icons of the Saint in the modern churches show a lively revival of the art of icon painting. Everyday, in the Mass of the Greek Orthodox Church, the name of St. George is invoked, and the worshippers have only to raise their heads to see, on the church walls or on the iconostasis, their favourite Saint in action against the evil of the ‘Dragon of the Abyss’, which rears above the pit from which it has emerged. The Great Martyr, the Victorious One, the Dragon-slayer, is still alive in the hearts and minds of the people of Eastern Christendom, cultural heirs to the Christians of the Eastern Roman Empire of Byzantium.





[1]           Gordon E O                St George; Champion of Christendom and Patron Saint                                      of England, p.28, London 1907

[2]           Gibbon E                    The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol 2, pp 1-                                      69, London, Dent, Everyman

[3]           Eusebius                    The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine,                                        pp 334-7 tr. Williamson G.A., Dorset Press, New York  1955

[4]           Thurston H T                         St George, The Month, Vol. LXXIV, April 1892,, pp. 458-                                       483

[5]           Stokes G T                  Greek Christian Inscriptions, Contemporary Review,                                           Vol. XXXVII June 1880 pp. 977-989

[6]           Burckhardt                Travels in Syria, p.60, cited by Wallis-Budge op cit n. 8

[7]           Boek                            Corpis Inscrip. Graec. Vol IV, Berlin 1877, cited by                                                      Wallis-Budge, op cit n 8

[8]           Budge E W                 George of Lydda: A Study of the Cult of St George in                                            Ethiopia, London 1930

[9]           Wilkinson                   Jerusalem Pilgrims Before the Crusades, Warminster                                         1977. This work includes trans. of Adamnan’s De Loci Sanctis

[10]         Heylyn P                     The Historie of St George of Cappadocia, London 1633,                                      Part II, Chap 6

[11]         Cormak R                   Writing in Gold: Byzantine Society and Its Icons George                                      Philip,  London 1985

[12]         Sherrard P                 Athos, The Holy Mountain, p. 102, London 1982

[13]         Weitzmann K             The Icon, Holy Images 6th-14th century. New York 1978

[14]         Haussig J                   A History of Byzantine Civilization , London 1976

[15]         Chatzidakis M          The Greek Museums: Byzantine Museum, Athens 1975

[16]         Bucketon D ed           The Treasury of San Marco Venice, Milan 1984

[17]         Dekahaye H               Legendes Greques des Saintes Militaires, Paris 1909

[18]         Papenbrock               Acta Sanctorum, April, Tom. IV pp ix-cv cited by Budge                                       W (1930)

[19]         Aufhauser J B             Das Drachenwunder des Hl. Georg, Byz. Arch. 1911

[20]         Gallagher S                 Medieval Art, Plate 23, New York 1969

[21]         Reau L                           Iconographie de L’Art Chretien, Tome III p 578, Paris                                         1955

[22]         Cormack R                  From Byzantium to El Greco, Greek Frescoes and Icons,                                       p.p .150-151 of Catalogue Exhib Roy. Acad. Arts, London 1987

[23]         Lancaster O                Sailing to Byzantium, p 110, London 1969

[24]         Manoussacas M         Guide to Museum of Icons of St George, Venice 1976

[25]         Psychoundakis         The Cretan Runner, Introduction p 6, Tr. P.L. Fermor,                                         London

[26]         Psychoundakis          op cit n 25