This personal ‘Search for St. George’ has taken me around many countries of the world, through the narrow tidy streets of Stockholm’s Gamla Stad, and the narrow untidy streets of Old Genoa; to small painted churches in Germany and Greece and Switzerland; to churches and chapels and museums in England and France, Italy and Spain; and even along the littered canyons of New York’s Manhattan Avenues. Regretfully, I have never reached the churches and museums of Caucasian Georgia, the rock churches of Ethiopia, nor — perhaps the greatest deprivation of all — the Sinai mountain fastness of the monastery of St. Catherine.
At the end of the search, one question remains, a question often put to me by interested friends, — “Why St. George?” They usually seem to mean “Why your special interest in St. George?” though some of the more perceptive also mean “How did St. George come to be so widely acclaimed as patron and protector of peoples and countries throughout Christendom, and why does his cult persist despite the indifference and hostility of the modern world to much of what he stood for?”
Perhaps my answer to the personal question may contribute to an answer to the wider question. When first asked this personal question, I often replied, after quite a long pause, ” I really don’t know”. Then I started probing into personal memories, and found some tantalising fragments of half forgotten events. As a boy, one of the greatest family treats was to be taken to London to see the Christmas performance of ‘Where The Rainbow Ends’, that delightful play about children, and for children, in which St. George miraculously appears on the stage in shining armour to rescue the children from the machinations of their wicked uncle.
That St. George was the very embodiment of chivalry, of gallantry, of bravery. He was the deliverer from oppression and tyranny and from the cruelty of fate, the one to be called upon by all men in the hour of need. This is why throughout history he has been the patron saint not only of great nations, but also of ordinary people: the patron of every just cause, and the protector from all danger and anxiety. Sailors in mortal peril called upon him to succour them, soldiers and citizens under siege implored his help. Prisoners and enslaved nations called on him to set them free. Those stricken with the pestilence prayed for his intercession, as evidenced by the countless hospitals dedicated to his name throughout the world. In many primitive communities, in places like Georgia and Ethiopia, he was considered to be greater than God, and people called upon him to help them in times of natural catastrophe, when they felt that even God had deserted them.
At his springtime feast St. George usurped the powers of the fertility gods of pagans, and was the patron saint of both cattle and the wolves who preyed on them. He was both Sun-God and Moon-God to those who still had memories of their pre- Christian pagan beliefs. Even in sophisticated theological circles, he had a unique reputation, unequalled by any other saint in the calendar. He was ‘Megalomartyr’ in the Eastern Church, and ‘Athlete of Christ’ in the Western Church. Only Christ himself, and sometimes perhaps St. Michael the Archangel, could match his prowess in the eyes of common men. He was the greatest of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, and as the patron saint of archers and armourers and horses and knights he was the ‘Victory Bringer’ for all who strove in battle, and especially those who strove against tyranny and oppression.
Paradoxically, his fame and his virtues have often kindled in the hearts of lesser men a kind of envious hatred which from time to time has erupted into a scurrilous campaign of denigration of St. George, which seeks not merely to deny his virtues, but even to deny his very existence. Sometimes it has sought to attribute to him personally the whole gamut of evil deeds from which he protects his devotees. Regretfully, this campaign was especially virulent in post-Reformation England. It was the fanatically anti-Catholic Dr. Reynolds who in his ‘De Idolotria Ecclesia Romanae’, published in 1596, described him as an Arian heretic, saying that as a “bloody butcher of Christians” St. George must surely be in hell.
The propagation of this calumny reached its peak in the writings of that gifted but warped 18th century historian Edward Gibbon. Gibbon’s hatred of Christianity is well known. His capacity for distorting the truth to satisfy his prejudices is well summed up in the words of the 20th century historian Robert Byron, who wrote:
As a master of historical technique, Gibbon is without equal. By means of his torrential style, his restrained impropriety, and the incomparable sarcasm of his attacks upon Christianity, he has made history an entertainment to more people than any other single man. Simultaneously he has achieved another superlative distinction. Accurate in every statement of his work, there has lived no individual writer responsible for a greater volume of inferential falsehood than he.
Gibbon enthusiastically propagated his prejudices in his ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, and in that work his anti-Christian malevolence is perhaps best illustrated by the wholly fictional portrayal of St. George as the evil Arian Bishop of the same name, who in the 4th century persecuted rival Christians with a fervour and brutality that matched the persecution of St. George himself under Diocletian, as apocryphally described in the famous ‘Acts’ of the Saint. After a bloodthirsty account of the wickednesses of the Arian Bishop George, Gibbon says of him:
The odious stranger, disguising every circumstance of time and place, assumed the mask of a martyr, a saint, and a Christian hero; and the infamous George of Cappadocia has been transformed into the renowned St. George of England, the patron of arms, of chivalry, and of the garter.
With typical pedantry, after having delivered this defamatory slander, Gibbon carefully manages to cover his tracks by saying, in a rather obscure footnote, that “this transformation is not given as absolutely certain, but as extremely probable”; thus apparently hoping to safeguard his cherished reputation for unbiased scholarship. Despite this footnote disclaimer, however, the fantasy which he deliberately encouraged by this fictional identification became well embedded in anti-Christian polemics. Even today it still crops up from time to time in learned journals, the latest example being a tedious and tendentious polemic inappropriately printed in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (July 1989)!
Today however the more widespread ‘anti-hero’ story about St. George is the one which concentrates upon the ‘evident’ fact that he never existed. This notion actually originated with Calvin, who declared that St. George was a mere ‘larva’; not in the sense of a mere worm, but in the classical sense of ‘larva’ as meaning a kind of ghost. This idea has been encouraged in recent times by the apparent ‘demotion’ of St. George in the re-arrangement of the Calendar of the Catholic church which occurred in 1968, when several saints of dubious provenance were removed from the list, and some others like St. George were relegated to a less conspicuous position.
This occasion has been enthusiastically seized upon by those who delight in besmirching the memory of St. George. The above-cited article in the Royal Society of Medicine declared gleefully that, ” The Pope struck St. George off the official roll of saints, on the grounds that no such person ever existed “.
Contrary to this assertion, the name of St. George was not removed from the Calendar, as the author of this article would have found if he had taken the trouble to consult the entry for 23rd April in the National Calendar of Proper Masses For Saints, in the current Weekday Missal of the Roman Catholic Church, (Pub. Collins 1982), which is headed Feast of St. George, Martyr, Patron of England. The opening prayer reads:
Lord, hear the prayer of those who praise your mighty power. As St. George was ready to follow Christ in suffering and death, so may he be ready to help us in our weakness
The Prayer over the Gifts reads:
Lord, bless our offerings and make them holy. May these gifts fill our hearts with the love which gave St. George victory over all his sufferings
The Prayer after Communion reads:
Lord, we receive your gifts from heaven at this joyful feast. May we who proclaim at this holy table the death and resurrection of your Son come to share his glory with St. George and all your holy martyrs ”
It is unlikely that the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales would permit such solemn words to be addressed in a mass dedicated to St. George, if the Vatican had declared that he never existed and had “struck him off the official roll” This just shows that one should not believe everything that is printed, even in reputable medical journals! The relevant Vatican decree did not in fact declare that “no such person ever existed”. It restated the very proper and correct judgment of the 5th century Pope Gelasius, who said that only God had true knowledge of the acts of St. George within his lifetime.
In the absence of reliable documentary evidence this is certainly true, but this statement in no way denies, nor purports to deny, the mass of archaeological, iconographical and traditional evidence which testifies to the strength and intensity of the cult of St. George that spread through Christendom from the 5th century onwards.
It is certain that around the beginning of the fourth century a man called George died for his faith in circumstances which caused his Christian contemporaries, and those who came after, to judge him to be the paragon of all human virtues. Nothing else can explain the astonishing breadth and depth of the cult that developed in succeeding centuries. The stone inscriptions on Palestinian churches of the early centuries, described in Chapter 1, testify to the origins of the cult, but the development of that cult is best evidenced by the remarkable growth of church dedications and of the iconography of the Saint, which has been a prime focus of attention in this book.
The earliest identifiable icon of St. George, that 6th century encaustic painting now in the monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai, (Plate xxx) exemplifies the simple message of his life, as his youthful figure stands humbly beside Our Lady, holding his simple cross of martyrdom. His gentle pale face beneath the shock of red hair, and his meek demeanour, speak only of calm resignation to the consequences of his determined stand for his faith against his persecutors. In later icons, the cross of martyrdom which testifies to his faith in the risen Christ is joined by the serpent or dragon of evil beneath his feet, the enemy defeated by the death of Christ, and by his own faith and death as a martyr.
New elements of iconography emerge in later centuries. St. George is gradually transformed into a soldier, a mounted knight, clad at first in the armour of the Byzantine Romans, and later in the armour of the Crusaders and their successors. Throughout this transformation, however, his youthful face retains the calm and serenity of that earliest Byzantine icon. And indeed, there is nothing incongruous in this gentle saint donning the ‘armour of God’ in defence of the faith for which he died, as so eloquently prescribed by St. Paul:
Put God’s armour on so as to be able to resist the devil’s tactics. … So stand your ground, with truth buckled round your waist, and integrity for a breastplate … always carrying the shield of faith so that you can use it to put out the arrows of the evil one. And then you must accept salvation from God to be your helmet and receive the word of God from the Spirit to use as a sword
Still later, several more picturesque iconographical elements appeared: the familiar scene of St. George and the Dragon based on the story of Voragine’s Golden Legend, depicting St. George’s rescue of the Princess of Silerie, with the King and his courtiers watching from the battlements; and the scene depicting the Saint’s rescue of the ‘coffee boy’ cup bearer, snatched away from his captivity in the Moorish court. Despite their superficial elements of fantasy, these scenes in fact depict allegories directly related to the basic elements of St. George’s martyrdom after his refusal to bow to the pagan rites of the Roman Emperor. In the Golden Legend scene, the Princess represents the country being rescued from paganism, as shown in related scenes depicting the baptism of the King and his retinue; and the rescue of the youthful cup-bearer from Moorish captivity is yet another version of the same basic theme, the triumph of the Christian faith over the paganism of infidels.
In many of the paintings of the Golden Legend story the dragon is slain by St. George, but there is an intriguing variant in which the dragon, tamed by the Saint’s prowess, is led away by the Princess on a chain or on a leash contrived from her girdle. This variant was beloved by the Georgians, as exemplified in the scene on the Chkari cross illustrated in Plate xxx , showing the crowned maiden leading away the scaly dragon by a leash, and as perpetuated in the traditional description of Georgians as “Christians of the Girdle. It is also found in Western art, notably in Uccello’s 15th century painting in the National Gallery in London, which shows the princess leading the dragon on a chain.
In his book entitled ‘Into the New Age’, Stephen Verney, Anglican Bishop of Ripon, and one time Canon at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, suggests that this iconographical variant may have a profound theological significance. The last Chapter of his book, entitled ‘St. George and the Dragon’, deals with the themes of death and renewal and resurrection. Toward the end of the chapter, it concentrates upon the significance of the dragon, not only in relation to St. George, but within the wider context of human redemption. He sees the dragon as:
a symbol of man in his undifferentiated state, man who is both animal and divine, a part of the reality which is nature/man/God. In the darkness of man’s unconscious there roar savage beasts breathing fire, but there also broods a supernatural wisdom. If this chaos can be differentiated, this primeval darkness pierced with light, the unconscious brought up into consciousness, then the dragon will deliver up his hidden treasure… The treasure (the object of our desire) will be seen no longer as heaps of gold and precious stones, but as the pearl of faith for which a man would gladly sell everything that he possesses
Why then does St. George, in Christ’s name, kill the dragon? This is the tragic error which the generality of Christians fell into because they could not tolerate their own ambiguity — they projected the evil within themselves onto the world outside and then tried t o kill it …in trying t o slay the dragon they were attempting the impossible because they were trying to do away with the instinctive, emotional, undifferentiated raw material of their own natures.
Bishop Verney then proceeds to describe the Uccello painting of St. George and the Dragon in the National Gallery, in the light of this concept of the nature of the dragon:
On the left of the picture is a maiden chained to a dragon, but the curious thing that strikes you as you look more closely is that the maiden has the dragon on a chain. She is not chained to the dragon, but the dragon is chained to her, like a lapdog. Then you notice the dragon’s face, in spite of its fangs, is full of kindness and wisdom together with the agony of suffering caused by St. George’s blow. The long spear has pierced its eye, and as you trace back the line of the spear you see at the top right-hand corner of the picture, in the clouds behind St. George, the eye of God. God is looking through St. George’s eye, down the spear, and into the dragon’s eye. St. George is piercing the dragon with the truth of God, or more exactly the truth of God is piercing the dragon through St. George. The dragon is human nature, the dark, chaotic, undifferentiated raw material of the Roman Empire or of the fifteenth century or of the twentieth century, the illusion to which we are chained— or is it chained to us?
The truth with which God strikes us is the divine love, which pierces our darkness through the death and resurrection of the Christ. When St. George pierced the dragon, in Christ’s name, it was St. George who died and entered into the communion of saints, and the dragon who was transformed, and a new age began.
This is a far cry from conventional allegorical interpretations of the significance of the dragon in the Golden Legend, but it is entirely in harmony with the multi-layered significance of medieval iconography, in which depths of profundity can underlie more superficial interpretations.
And what of St. George himself, the man who faced the ‘dragon of the abyss’ in his own martyrdom, and was in fact killed by that dragon. What was the character and nature of this particular man, who submitted to the dragon in his own life, even though he became the victor over the dragon through and after his death? One of the most frequently recurring themes which pervades the traditions and devotions associated with St. George is that of his invincibility. Indeed, one might go so far as to say that there runs through these traditions and devotions an undeniable thread of semi-deification. Does this perhaps provide some clue to the question: – Why St. George?
In part this semi-deification may have derived from the memories of astral worship which led early Georgian Christians to identify the Saint with the Moon-God o r Sun-God of their earlier beliefs. These memories also led them to the extravagant notion that St. George was equal to, or even greater than God, and to attribute superhuman characteristics to his intercessions.
Curiously, however, the established Church, in both East and West, has sometimes seemed to contribute to this thread of unorthodox belief, by using such phrases as ‘Megalomartyr’ and ‘Athlete of Christ’. It was almost as though they were substituting St. George for Christ himself, and it may have been this which eventually caused such a backlash of condemnation from puritan critics, and served to stimulate the spite and envy of those who have so passionately vilified the memories of the Saint.
At t h e same time it is impossible to avoid the feeling that there must have been something unique about this martyr, which seems to have set him above all others except Christ himself, and which seems on occasion to have made him, in the eyes of both Church and people, a substitute for Christ. There were many martyrs for the faith in early Christian times, many of whom have life histories indistinguishable from that of St. George: a history summed up in the simple fact that this otherwise unknown man gave up his life for his faith. Most of these other martyrs languish in obscurity, recorded only by their names. Why did the fame of this one among them enlarge to such unique proportions? To return again to the title of this chapter, — Why St. George?
I can think of only one possible answer. Simply, that of all men who have existed, this man was uniquely good and brave, perhaps to a degree greater than all other mortal humans. Although every man is ‘capax Dei’, capable of reaching God, and although in this sense we are all equal in the eyes of God, our moral achievements in this world are demonstrably variable: otherwise all of us would already be seen as Saints. This means that there are a few who are outstanding even among the ranks of the declared Saints; and that among these few there is just one who stands above all others. This is perhaps the reason why this particular Saint, known only by his name and by the fact of his martyrdom, has been chosen by so many to be their patron and protector. Perhaps ordinary people can sense the presence of unique goodness and bravery without the need for officially documented records. Perhaps St. George was quite simply the best man among us, the best that we, the race of created human beings, have achieved in our struggle towards salvation.
 Byron R The Byzantine Achievementm p 36, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London and New York, 1929
 Gibbon E The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Vol 2, Chapter XXIII, pp 397-399. Everyman’s Library, Dent, London 1979
 Addington C St George of England: A Study of Sainthood and Legend, pp 434-435, Jnl Royal Soc Med, Vol 82, July 1989
 Verney S Into the New Age, pp 153-157, Collins, Fontana, London 1976