At the height of its power in the 7th century, the Byzantine Roman Empire under Justinian the Great stretched northward to the Danube, westward by one and a half thousand miles from Constantinople to the far shores of the Mediterranean, southward by one and a half thousand miles to the upper reaches of the Blue Nile, and eastward by one thousand miles to the shores of the Caspian Sea. The strength and influence of central Imperial government was strongest in Asia Minor and the southern half of the Balkan peninsula, and inevitably diminished progressively toward it southernmost borders. At the far distant borders quasi-independent kingdoms and dukedoms paid homage to the central authority of the Empire, but were far from being subservient vassal states. Even closer to home, some of the provinces on occasion rebelled overtly against Imperial rule, and claimed total independence from their Byzantine overlords. Thus Bulgarian Tsars, for example, intermittently claimed and exercised independent control for long periods over large areas of the Balkan peninsula.

There were corresponding cultural divergences between the metropolis of Constantinople and the cities of the border states and provinces. Christianity was the official religion throughout the Empire, but its cultural practices were far from uniform. We see this in religious art and architecture, as well as in liturgical practice. The iconography of St. George was no exception to this general rule, and in the outer provinces and semi-autonomous states there were marked deviations from the formal pattern that characterised icons from the workshops of Constantinople, especially those of the later centuries of Empire. Even in some of the nearby Balkan provinces there were marked iconographic differences. The cult of the saint as martyr-warrior was just as strong there as it was in the metropolis, but distinct forms of representation arose, and were perpetuated through succeeding centuries.

In Bulgaria and Dalmatia an interesting and unusual iconographic variant developed, in which the warrior-saint is enthroned in a pose which can best be described as being ‘seated in majesty’. This was a fairly early development, for there is a 10th century example in an icon from the Bulgarian Monastery of Rila, the subject of a 40 st value of a series of Bulgarian postage stamps issued in 1968 on the 1000th anniversary of the Monastery.

Chap 2 Plate 1 alt 2
St George enthroned in majesty. 40 st Bulgarian stamp 1968

In this icon the Saint holds a sword across his breast, and unusually his mien is very stern, giving the impression that he is seated in judgement. A 16th century Bulgarian icon from Plovdiv, now in the National Gallery in Sofia, shows a more benevolent enthroned St. George, holding a lance in his right hand. Its motif is the angelic crowning of the Saint, a common theme in icons of the post Comnenian era in the border dependencies of Byzantium. This icon also has also been depicted on a Bulgarian stamp, issued in 1969.

Chap 2 Plate 2
Angelic crowning of Saint George. 16th cent Bulgarian icon from Plovdiv. National Gallery, Sofia

A third example of the enthroned Saint is found in a 17th century icon in the Treasure of the Patriarchite in city of Pec. In this the seated figure is surrounded by a border of finely executed small paintings depicting eighteen scenes from St. George’s Passion. Here once more the mien of the Saint is rather stern, and he carries a sword in his right hand, the left hand grasping its sheath as though he is about to unsheath the weapon to execute justice. Above the head of the Saint, behind the throne, the Sun, the Moon and various other heavenly bodies are depicted.

Chap 2 Plate 3
St George enthroned in majesty. 17th cent icon from Treasure of the Patriarchate in Pec, Kosovo
St George surrounded by scenes from his life and martyrdom. Patriarchate in Pec, Kosovo

Another unusual theme is found in an icon of the Saint in the Church of St. George in Strega in the Republic of Macedonia. This depicts the ‘Raising of Glicarius’ oxen’, a miracle from the apocryphal Passion of the Saint which led to St. George becoming the patron Saint of farmers.

Chapt 2 Pl 4
The Miracle of the Raising of Glicarius’ Oxen in St George’s Church, Strega, Republic of Macedonia
George Struga001
Icon in the Church of St George, Strega, Republic of Macedonia, dated 1267

And yet another provincial theme which is foreign to metropolitan Byzantine art is the portrayal of an equestrian St. George with the horse standing or rearing over the prostrate figure of Diocletian, rather than the figure of the Dragon. There is an excellent example of this in a 17th century icon in the crypt of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the Bulgarian capital city, Sofia ,which was reproduced on a 40st Bulgarian stamp issued in a block of four, in 1969. Here there is no mistaking the identity of the prostrate figure dressed in court attire, with an Imperial mace dropped on the ground beside him.

Chap 2 Plate 5
St George Defeats Diocletian. 17th cent. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia

One example of this theme, a 9th century icon at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai, has already been mentioned and illustrated in Chapter 1. It was judged by Weitzmann to be the work of the Iberian (Georgian) colony of monks located there, and other examples in Georgian icons will be later discussed in this chapter.

The cult of St. George was also strong in the Byzantine provinces which today make up modern Romania, especially the provinces of Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania. During the last stages of fragmentation of the Empire, when the Turks were penetrating northwards into the European heartland, St. George was invoked in those areas as the protector of Christian people, and according to Scott Fox [1] the Moldavians made him their patron saint.

The most impressive evidence of his cult is to be found in the celebrated ‘painted’ churches of Moldavia, which are unique in the Christian world, being covered externally with frescoes which have survived many centuries of exposure to the elements. Nearly a dozen such Moldavian ‘painted’ churches, with external frescoes executed during the first half of the 16th century, still remain in excellent condition.

Geoerge and Demetrius 18th c
St George and St Demetrius, Plovdiv Province, Bulgaria, showing the slaying of Diocletian as well as the dragon

St. George is prominent in several of these. A fairly conventional representation of the Saint slaying the dragon appears on the south face of the porch pillar of the monastery church of Moldavita, which was built by Petru Rares, Duke of Moldavia, in 1532, and was painted five years later. The monastery church of Arbore, built by Luca Arbore, Governor of Suceava principality and Commander in chief of the army, was built in 1502, and was decorated in 1541 by a noted artist called Dragos. The outer walls of this church carry a cycle of paintings depicting a most unusual variant of the story of St. George. In this, the Saint was not martyred by Diocletian, as told in the famous stories of his ‘Passion’. Instead, the Emperor succumbed to his exhortations, and was finally converted to the Christian faith. Perhaps the painter of this cycle confused Diocletian with the King whose daughter was rescued from the dragon in the Golden Legend story, and who was subsequently baptised as a Christian.

Emperor’s court pays homage to St George, Arbore Church, Romania, 16th century wall painting

Some of the frescoes on yet another of the ‘painted’ monastery churches, built and dedicated in 1488 to St. George at Voronet by King Stephen the Great, and decorated outside in 1547 by order of the Metropolitan Grigare Rosea, also depict scenes of the Saint. One of these depicts another unusual theme, showing St. George leading into Christ’s presence the famous warrior King Stephen, who was described by a contemporary Pope as ‘Athlete of Christ’, a title frequently applied to St. George himself.

Coronet Church: St George leads the warrior king, Stephen into the presence of Christ

In 1969 the Romanian postal authorities issued three sets of postage stamps showing frescoes from four of these ‘painted’ churches. These include the George and Dragon painting from the Moldavita church, and two of the scenes of the Saint from the Arbore cycle. The best of these reproductions is that shown on a miniature sheet, providing a detail of the ‘Emperor’s court rendering homage to the victorious St. George’. The Saint, seated on the Emperor’s right hand, is clearly the guest of honour for the occasion.

The strength of the cult of St. George in these provinces is also demonstrated by the prevalence of St. George themes in Romanian icons painted on glass. This genre of folk art seems to have developed in Romania sometime in the 17th century, and thousands of such icons produced between then and the 20th century have survived. The icon was painted as a mirror image on the back of a sheet of glass, which was further backed by a sheet of paper, and then enclosed in a wooden frame. Many of these glass paintings were copies of earlier icons of Byzantine origin, so their iconographical content has a significance preceding their date of provenance. These icons on glass demonstrate vigorous workmanship despite its lack of artistic finesse. The icons shown is 19th century, from Laz, in the Sebes valley. The use of Greek lettering, in a country which normally uses Western lettering, suggest that it may be a copy of an older Greek or Russian icon.

Romanian Laz, Sebes Valley 19th c red 001
19th cent Romanian icon on glass from Laz, Sebes Valley, Romania

In addition to the conventional ‘George and Dragon’ theme, with on-looking King and Queen perched on the city walls, this icon also carries in its top left hand corner an intriguing feature which appears to be either a Sun-God or a Moon-God, with a face reminiscent of the ‘Man in the Moon’ fantasies of modern childrens’ picture books. Yet another Romanian St. George painted on glass, from Arpasul de Sus, also dated from the 19th century, depicts a mounted St. George carrying the ‘coffee-boy’ on the crupper of his horse, while the sky above the Saint is painted with stars . The astral features of these two painted glass icons apparently relate to earlier traditions in the iconography of the Saint, or to provincial folk-lore associated with him. They will be further discussed later in this chapter, in connection with Georgian icons. The cult of the great soldier saints of Byzantium, especially Sts. George, Theodore and Demetrius, was widespread throughout the Empire, and in some of the outer regions several of them were acknowledged simultaneously as co-patrons. But in one outlying province of the Empire St. George was for many centuries the national Patron Saint, sharing this status only with Our Lady. This was the kingdom of Georgia, earlier known as Iberia, beyond the far distant eastern shores of the Black Sea.

Romanian on glass Arpasal de Sus red
St George with the ‘coffee boy’. Romanian glass icon from Arpasal de Sus  dated 1872

This small mountainous country, fought over for many centuries by Greeks and Persians and Moslems and Mongols, eventually annexed by Tzarist Russia, and bequeathed by default to Soviet Russia, has had a rich and fascinating history. During the years of the Byzantine Empire, with which it had a close political association, it was also, by virtue of its mineral riches, a wealthy country. As a consequence, it has left to posterity a rich accumulation of durable artifacts made from precious metals, which provide a fascinating guide to the history and culture of the region.

Georgia was converted to Christianity much earlier than most of the European countries lying to the north of the Danube. Western Georgia had been a Roman province from AD 63, and consequently traded extensively with the Mediterranean world, largely through Greek colonies on the eastern shores of the Black Sea. The conversion of this part of Georgia was essentially a part of the general Christianising of the Roman Empire both before and after Constantine the Great. A bishop from West Georgia was among those recorded as attending the first Council of Nicaea, so the faith must have been well established here by 325, the date of the Council. The liturgy in this part of Georgia was that of Constantinople, in Greek at first, but later in Georgian, after the 8th century.

Eastern Georgia however derived its Christianity from Syria and Palestine via Armenia, and its development owed much to the apostolate of a captive woman known anonymously in the Roman Martyrology as St. Christiana (the Christian woman), and by the Georgians themselves as St. Nino or St. Nina. Her story was recounted by the ecclesiastical historian Rufinus of Aquileia, who obtained it towards the end of the 4th century from the Iberian prince Bacurius. It was later much embellished by Georgian and Armenian legends. One story says that she was daughter of the patriarch of Jerusalem, another that she was a fugitive from the Diocletian persecution under which St. George was martyred. She is said to have arrived in Eastern Georgia around the year 330, and her devotion to the faith manifested itself in miraculous cures which came to the notice of the Queen. Within a short time both the Queen and her husband King Mirian were converted, and the king sent messengers to Constantine the Great, asking for missionaries to help in the conversion of his people.

For the next three centuries Georgia was involved in almost continuous conflict between Byzantine and Persian Emperors. For a period it passed under Persian control, but regained independence under The Lion King of Georgia (Vakhtang Gurgaslani 450-503). By 533 it was again a Persian province, but was finally restored by the Byzantines in 562, as a kingdom for Guaram, a descendant of the Lion King, who established his capital at Tiflis (Tbilsi). Throughout these vicissitudes the Christian faith of the Georgian people remained steadfast, and by the beginning of the 6th century there were as many as 30 bishops in the country. By this time Christianity had entirely replaced and assimilated the old pagan religions, which were an amalgam of local astral and ancestor cults based on worship of personified forces of Nature, with Mazdaism, which had been introduced from Persia, and which was dominated by a very strong element of worship of the Sun, the Moon and the five Planets.

With the upsurge of Islam, another and more aggressive religious challenge emerged, and by the 8th century there was an Arab Emirate in Tbilsi. But the Christian faith remained undiminished, and in 1008 a Christian State was again restored in Georgia under Bagrat III. Later in that century the Seljuk Turks invaded, but after many reverses the Georgians were fortuitously saved by the launching of the first Crusade, which forced the Turks to divert their military strength into the Levant. King David II eventually re-conquered Tbilsi in 1122. There followed the ‘Golden Age’ of Georgia under King David and his descendants, including the famed and much loved Queen Tamara who extended the royal dominions into Armenia, and who sent missionaries far and wide, building numerous churches. This relatively idyllic period of Georgian history lasted until the coming of the Mongolian ‘Golden Horde’, followed by the Turkish hordes of Tamerlane, in the 13th and 14th centuries.

According to ancient Georgian chronicles, Our Lady was regarded as patron saint and guardian of Georgia during the first millenium, and there is even an apocryphal story that she converted the nation to Christianity. Amiranashvili [2] records that there are surviving examples of 5th century Georgian art depicting the Virgin and Child, and there are certainly many beautiful examples of such art dating from the 10th century. He also records that there are several surviving art works of the 6th and 7th centuries depicting St. George, but it is far from clear as to when St. George replaced Our Lady as the leading patron saint of Georgia. One source [3] suggests that his cult arose as early as the 6th century, that he was adopted as patron saint when the Bagratids became firmly seated on the throne of Georgia towards the end of the 8th century, and that his mounted figure was at that time incorporated into the royal insignia. Certainly by the 10th century, there was a widespread cult of the Saint, as evidenced by many beautiful gold and silver icons of the 10th century and onwards, which are still preserved in Georgian Museums. From the outset these exhibited some very distinctive features which characterise the iconography of the Saint in Georgian religious art. The most evident is the depiction of the mounted Saint holding his lance above a prostrate human figure, in some cases explicitly stated to be that of the Emperor Diocletian. Even where there is no direct identification, the crown worn by the prostrate figure in some cases, and the imperial sceptre displayed in others, leave little doubt as to its identity. It should be noted that these examples predate by about two centuries the emergence of the mounted St. George and Dragon theme in Western art. One icon from the State Art Museum in Tbilsi may have a special significance in this context, for the sinuous prostrate figure is in this case clad in scaly-armour whose texture closely resembles the scaly hide of a reptile.

11th cent repouse icon Saakao.jpg
11th century repousse icon from Saakao, Georgia, State Art Museum Tbilisi                          (Photo Karel Neubert)
Svaneti Museum St George with Diocletian
Silver gilt icon of St George with the prostrate figure of Diocletian. Svaneti Museum, Georgia
St George XI cent Svaneti Museum
11th century silver-gilt icon of St George, Svaneti Museum, Georgia

One can readily see how this scaly human figure may have anticipated the transition from the theme of subjugation of Emperor Diocletian to the theme of St. George and the Dragon. Such transition is made even more explicit in scenes depicted and described on a large gilded silver altar cross from Chkhari, now in the Georgian Museum of Fine Arts, dated from the 15th century. Altogether this cross carries twelve scenes relating to St. George. Eight of them are scenes from his Passion, in turn representing the Saint being questioned by Diocletian; being scourged; lying in his dungeon under a huge stone; in quicklime; being broken on the wheel; resurrecting a dead man; being beaten; and being beheaded.

Chapter 2 Chkhari Cross.jpg
Four scenes from the life of St George from the Chkhari Cross, Georgian Museum of Fine Arts, Georgia (Photo Karel Neubert)

The other four scenes show the turning of the tables. In one of them the mounted Saint’s lance is piercing the small mounted figure of the crowned Diocletian. In the next his lance is piercing the mouth of a two-legged dragon, while on the crupper of his horse there rides the ‘coffee boy’; this scene carries the inscription “Here St. George is setting free the imprisoned youth from Bulgaria”. The next scene is inscribed “Here St. George killed the Dragon”, showing the mounted Saint with his sword raised over the head of a snake like monster. Finally, he is shown riding with his weapons carried high, while below him a crowned maiden leads a scaly dragon away by a leash: it is inscribed “Here St. George rescued a maiden and the city of Lassia from the Dragon”. This latter scene recalls the fact that in the Middle East the Georgians were often termed “Christians of the Girdle’, apparently referring to the girdle by which the Princess led away the wounded Dragon.

Chapt 2 pl 12
George and the Dragon 15th century cloisonné enamel icon, Georgia

In the 15th century Georgian metal workers achieved a superb technique in cloisonné enamels, and there are some beautiful examples of these in St. George icons which were earlier in the Botkin collection, but were returned to Georgia in 1923.  The illustration shows the mounted Saint spearing the dragon,  while the Princess leads the wounded dragon by a leash. The hand of God is in a quadrant of a circle in the upper right corner.

Gori Dzhvari Cross.jpg
The Gori-Dzhvari Cross, Georgia. (Photo Karel Neubert)

Not all of the Georgian icons of St. George were equestrian representations, and not all of them were fabricated in metal. There are many surviving examples of standing figures of the Saint, some in metal and some painted on wood. In some cases the saint is shown with his familiar companions Theodore and Demetrius. There is also one noteworthy example of the theme of St. George seated in majesty, one of the scenes on a repousse cross from Gori-Dzhvari which is now in the Georgian Museum of Fine Art, and which came from the ‘hoard’ of the Kakhetian king Alexander I (1476-1511). The central theme on this cross is the Crucifixion, but with only one exception the others all depict episodes from the well known Acts of St. George. The exception is the scene immediately below the central Crucifixion, showing the Saint seated on a throne, trampling a dragon underfoot.

Gold mitre of the Catholicos of Georgia
Gold mitre of the Catholicos of Bulgaria 1683 (Photo Karel Neubert)

Finally there is one item of outstanding importance in this survey of Georgian metal-work icons relevant to our theme, viz. the golden repousse mitre of the Katholicos of Georgia, still used in Georgian Church ceremonials. This was made in 1683 in Persia by the goldsmith Papua Bebrishvili for Queen Helena, the mother of Heraclius I, and Amiranashvili has recorded that he judges it to be the most striking example of Georgian metalwork. It is also perhaps the most significant iconographical representation of St. George, as an indicator of his status in the Georgian Church. Around the vertical panels of the mitre can be found successively the half-figure images of Christ, St. John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, the Four Evangelists, and St. George. His elevation to such a distinguished company of holy figures leaves little doubt as to the strength of devotion to St. George in Georgia, the land which carries his very name.

Whether or not the name Georgia is in fact derived from the name of St. George is a matter of opinion. Most authorities consider that the name of the country derives independently from the Persian name Gurj, but even so, it seems likely that the close similarity between the two names would have provided an added impetus to the development of the cult of St. George, after it had reached the country once called Iberia. This may well be an example of the merging of separate historical strands, something which also seems to have occurred in the cult of popular devotion to St. George, where strands from pre-existing cults undoubtedly became interwoven with the stories of St. George himself.

An ancient icon reproduced on Georgian postage stamps issued just after the Russian revolution is of especial interest in this context. After the ‘Golden Age’ of the Bagratids, Georgia endured several centuries of continuous struggle against Mongol, Persian and Turkish invaders. Tamerlane finally withdrew from Georgia in 1403, and for around half a century the country enjoyed a measure of freedom and prosperity. Towards the end of the 15th century, however, during a war between Turkey and Persia which threatened to overrun Georgia, the king sought the protection of the Russian Tsar John III, thus initiating the gradual process of Russian domination of the kingdom.

A century later, in 1587, help was again sought from Boris Godounoff of Russia, and in 1618, when Shah Abbas invaded Georgia, the king appealed for aid to Michael Feodorovitch, the first of the Romanoffs. In 1716, further excesses committed by Turks and Persians afforded Peter the Great the excuse to take the king of Georgia under his protection. Yet another century of ravage and pillage of the country by the warring Turks and Persians forced king George XIII, in 1799, to lay down his crown in favour of Russian sovereignty. On September 12, 1801, Tsar Alexander I issued a proclamation annexing Georgia to the Russian Empire, and so the ancient kingdom was finally swallowed up by its powerful northern neighbour.

The hitherto independent Georgian Church was forced into communion with the Russian Orthodox Church, and the ‘St. George the Dragon’ of the arms of Georgia were added to the array of provincial arms displayed on one of the wings of the double-headed eagle of the Russian Tsars, thus providing a twin to the Muscovite St. George at the centre of the eagle. There they stayed for more than a century, until the fire and rage of Communist Revolution obliterated every manifestation of the hated Tsarist regime.

Immediately following the 1917 Revolution the Tsarist Empire temporarily fragmented into a number of independent territories, some of which declared themselves to be separate republics. As early as 1917 the Georgians proclaimed anew the spiritual independence of the Georgian National Church, and on 21st May 1918 the National Democratic Republic of Georgia was proclaimed at Tiflis. In 1919 the first postage stamps of the new Republic of Georgia were issued. They were also the last, because three years later, in 1922, the Soviets overran the country, and established the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia, once more subservient to Moscow.

Chapt 2 Pl 14
Postage stamp National Democratic Republic of Georgia 1919

All of the stamps of this issue portray the Arms of the short-lived Republic, which are said to have been based on an ancient battle standard of early Georgian Kings.[4] This represents St. George on a white horse, bearing a lance, crossing the ‘Black Mountain’. Both the provenance of the design, and the location of the Black Mountain, are unknown.
The most interesting feature is the depiction of the Sun, the Moon and the Five Planets, in the sky above the equestrian figure of St. George; a clear example of the incorporation of religious symbols from the pagan beliefs of ancient Georgia into the iconography of the Christian era.

Chapt 2 pl 14 b
Postage Stamp of National Democratic Republic of Georgia 1919 with the name of the country in French

The Planets in this icon have a simple star shape, but the circles of both the Sun and the Moon carry indications of features. These are quite explicit in the ‘face’ of the Sun, where one can distinguish separate eyes and nose. The vignette of St. George in the lower denomination stamps constitutes the main feature of the design. There is one medium denomination stamp in which the vignette is larger, and is surrounded by another circle carrying the name of the country in French, La Georgie. The high denomination stamps of the issue carry the smaller version of the St. George vignette, but here it is superimposed on a shield carried by the famous Queen Tamara, who is shown seated, holding a royal sceptre or spear, as well as the shield. This historic allusion to the ‘Golden Age’ of the Bagratids of the early 13th century is especially relevant to our theme. Queen Tamar, herself revered as a saint among country folk, was daughter of King George III, and mother of her successor King George IV, both of whom thus carried the name of the Patron Saint of the Nation.

Chapt 2 pl 14 c
Postage stamp of the National Democratic Republic of Georgia with Queen Tamara

This association of St. George with ancient pagan beliefs and rites persisted in Georgia into fairly recent times, though 
in today’s Soviet Russia it probably lingers on only in remote villages. Allen, in his ‘History of the Georgian People’, declares that nocturnal celebrations on St. George’s feast in Georgia, in which he is called the’ Moon-Knight’, are “none 
other than the pagan rites of moon worship”. St. George is apparently considered as the most important being, even greater than Christ. He is especially associated with Elias, and these two figures are said to retain many of the attributes accorded 
to the solar-lunar deities in pagan times. Allen goes on to say:

…. he guards man and beast and crops against the destructive forces of nature, even against the caprices and evil humour of God. The Khevsurs [a people of the Caucasus] address St. George in the words ‘Oh God, thou Holy George’. The Svanians [a north Georgian people] respect St. George more than the creator, and consider him as more powerful than God [5]

After Russian Imperialism was re-imposed on the Georgians by the Soviets Communists, many supporters of the independent Republic fled to the West. These Georgian emigrés formed a nationalist organization in exile, giving it the name ‘Tetri Georgi’, meaning ‘The White George’, thus invoking the support of their ancient national Patron Saint for their apparently hopeless crusade. For many decades this has seemed to be a lost cause, but today it seems possible that their faith in their patron Saint may yet lead to the fulfilment of their dreams for an independent Georgia, and that we may once again see the figure of St. George in the official arms of a reborn nation.

Historically the Georgians have shared their intense devotion to St. George, as a supreme protector and intercessor, with another people on the ‘Borders of Byzantium’, viz the Ethiopians, thousands of miles distant, on the southern border of Empire. The Ethiopia of two millenia ago differed geographically from the Ethiopia of today. It did not stretch so far south into Africa, but instead it included a substantial territory at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula, corresponding roughly to modern Yemen. This area was then called Saba (Biblical Sheba, the home of Solomon’s Queen o f Sheba). People from Saba and nearby areas had earlier spread across the Red Sea to the African continent, and they were one of the dominant Ethiopian strains. The capital city at that time was the city of Axum, in Tigre, on the African side of the Red Sea.

There are records of conflicts between the Romans and the Ethiopians around the beginning of the first millenium.
 Petronius invaded the land and sacked the capital, and a
 northern strip of Ethiopian territory was recorded as belonging to the Roman Empire at that time. Relations between the Byzantine Roman Empire and Ethiopia seem to have been generally cordial, and the assistance of the Axumites in Arabia was successfully invoked by Justinian, at a time just before the rise of Islam in that area. After the rise of Islam, they were driven out of Arabia, and thereafter consolidated their nation on the African side of the Red Sea.
Despite this fairly tenuous relationship with the Byzantine Christian Empire, the Ethiopians, like the Georgians, were converted to Christianity at a very early date. As in Eastern Georgia, this seems to have come about largely through the efforts of one person, in this case a St. Frumentius, who later became Bishop of Axum. By coincidence, we learn of his story from the pen of that same Rufinus who recorded the story of St.Nino of Georgia. It seems that around the year 330, a philosopher of Tyre, named Meropius, undertook a journey of exploration to the coasts of Arabia, aiming to see the world and generally to improve his knowledge, He was accompanied by two young men named Frumentius and Aedesius, whose education had been entrusted to his care. During the journey home, they touched at a port on the Ethiopian mainland, where a fracas with local natives led to the slaughter of the crew and of Meropius himself. Only the two young men, who were studying at some distance from their ship, were spared.

The young men were taken to the king at Axum. He was impressed by their bearing and knowledge, and made Aedesius his cup-bearer, while Frumentius became his secretary. Some years later, on his death bed, the king gave them their liberty, and the Queen, then Regent for her eldest son, begged them to remain and assist her. Frumentius became the manager of royal affairs, and from this position he succeeded in persuading several Christian traders to settle in the country. He procured facilities for them to follow the practices of their faith, and by his example he recommended the faith to his pagan hosts.
When the young king came of age, and with his brother took over control of government, the two Tyrians resigned their posts, despite pleas that they should stay. Aedesius returned to Tyre, where he was later ordained priest, and where he recounted the story of their adventures to Rufinus. Frumentius however travelled to Alexandria, where he begged the bishop,
 St. Anastatius, to send a priest to convert the Ethiopians.

Thereupon, St. Anastatius ordained Frumentius himself, and sent him back to carry out the work for which he was evidently so well fitted. Frumentius seems to have returned to Axum around the year 350, and he soon made many conversions through his preaching and through the miracles which he worked. The two royal brothers received baptism, and are still venerated today in the Ethiopian calendar. The conversion of the Axumite Kingdom was still far from complete when Frumentius died. After his death he was called Abuna, “Our Father”, and Aba salama, ‘Father of Peace’. Abuna is still the title of the head of the Church of Ethiopia.

As a result of Frumentius’ evangelizing efforts, the Ethiopian Christian Church became closely linked with the Church of Alexandria, as it still is to this day. One consequence of this link however was that the Ethiopian Church later followed the Egyptian Coptic Church in adopting the Monophysite heresy, which insists that there is only one nature in God. This heresy arose in Syria, which had always strongly influenced the Egyptian Church, and this influence proceeded up the course of the Nile to the heart of Ethiopia. Today there are barely 60,000 Ethiopian Catholics in Ethiopia, compared with 9 million Monophysites.

Just when the cult of St. George reached Ethiopia is uncertain. Syria was of course the heart of that cult, and certainly the cult was and still is very strong among the Egyptian Copts, who were as strongly influenced by Syrian hagiology as they were by Syrian heresy. There are numerous ancient churches dedicated to St. George throughout Egypt, and it seems that the church of St. George at Gergeh (George) may even have preceded the first church said to have been dedicated to him at Constantinople. It is said that there are still as many as 40 churches dedicated to St. George in modern Egypt, and he remains the principal patron of Coptic Christians.

Some sources suggest that the cult of the Saint did not reach Ethiopia until as late as the 14th century, but this view seems to ignore the early established line of communication between the place of origin of the cult in Syria, through the Egyptian Coptic Church, and onward up the Nile to the capital of Axumite Ethiopia. It seems to be based upon the fact that there are no extant Ethiopic documents about St. George earlier than the 15th century, but this is not surprising, because the Moslem Arab conqueror Muhammad Gran ravaged the whole country in 1540, destroying practically all the churches and monasteries in Ethiopia. When he was eventually defeated and ousted, the church authorities set to work to multiply copies of the Holy Scriptures and other religious works, including accounts of the life of St. George.

Whatever the historic truth of the matter, there is no denying the evidence of an intense devotion to the Saint in all extant records of the Ethiopian Church. By the end of the 15th century as many as eighty epic accounts of St. George’s miracles had been produced, most of them being translations from Coptic Arabic originals. They include accounts of miracles claimed to have been performed by the Saint in Ethiopia.

St. George's Cathedral, Piazza, Addis Abeba, Ethiopia
St. George’s Cathedral, Addis Ababa

Churches dedicated to the Saint are to be found throughout Ethiopia, including the capital city, Addis Ababa. One of the most impressive of these is a cathedral which was built by Emperor Menelik II in Addis Ababa. It was dedicated to 
St. George, as Patron Saint of the nation, to celebrate Menelik’s famous victory over the Italians at Adowa, in 1896.

Rock Church Lalibela 2
St George from the rock Church of St George, Lalibela, Ethiopia

Ethiopian Christian art has never manifested itself in carved or sculpted figures, but rather in wall paintings and in painted icons on flat surfaces. Such paintings of St. George abound throughout the country in ancient churches, including the famous rock churches of Lalibela. Almost invariably these St. George icons portray the Saint mounted on a white horse. He is usually black-haired and swarthy, quite different from the red-haired, pale faced saint of the Byzantines. A 17th century icon painted on canvas, as shown on an Ethiopian postage stamp issued in 1971, and reproduced in , is typical of the genre. As with most Ethiopian icons, the Saint is shown full face.

St. George on horseback was also portrayed in a stamp issued on the Silver Jubilee of Haile Selassie’s coronation, in 1955. This stamp celebrated the return of Eritrea to Ethiopia in 1952, and it makes clear that St. George was given credit for that historic liberation. A group of horsemen, including the Emperor Haile Selassie, are portrayed in the foreground. One rider points to the sky, where St. George can be seen, lance in hand, urging the Ethiopians to defend their Christian heritage. This portrayal of the Saint is however in a rather stereotyped Western style, not in keeping with Ethiopian icon traditions.

The Ethiopians are especially addicted to stories of the saints, and above all to accounts of the horrible tortures and sufferings endured by the martyrs. The gruesome Ethiopian pictures of the tortures of Saint George mentioned in Chapter 1, and exemplified by the scenes in Plate , are typical of this addiction. As in Georgia, country folk in Ethiopia respect
St. George as being greater than God. An old (mid 19th century) edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica records:

Their reverence for a saint is often greater than for the Almighty, and a man who would not hesitate to invoke the name of his Maker in witness to a falsehood may decline so to use the name of St. Michael or St. George.

I have travelled to many countries of the world ‘In Search of St. George’, but unfortunately have not yet succeeded in reaching Ethiopia. Quite recently, however, I reached the ‘Blue Nile’ in a most unexpected place, on the upper West Side of New York City, in a restaurant of that name on Columbus Avenue. The proprietor, an Ethiopian named Araya Selassie, was kind enough to allow one of my friends to photograph the superb icons of St. George, painted on cow-hide, which are hung on his restaurant walls. One of these, reproduced in Plate , was especially fascinating. It depicts a typical black-haired Ethiopian
 St. George mounted on a white horse, bestriding a crowded assembly of people depicted below. These people are in two groups. To the left is a fairly small group of dignified figures, apparently representing those who have been saved through the faith. To the right is a much larger group who are obviously the damned condemned to hell, being consumed by raging tongues of fire. For good measure, St. George’s horse is also dripping tongues of fire from its mouth on to the heads of the unfortunate lost souls below.

Most intriguing of all, however, is the small mounted figure of the Emperor Constantine, also below the equestrian Saint, separating the two groups of the saved and the damned, and himself bestriding a human figure lying on the ground beneath his horse. This is evidently the figure of Diocletian, in a scene similar to, but even more complicated than that beloved by the Georgians. This icon was purchased by 
Mr. Selassie in Addis Ababa in 1984, and is apparently an example of modern popular art-work; so it seems that religious traditions, and more especially the old traditions of
 St. George, are still surviving in the communist environment of modern Ethiopia. Several of the iconographical features of this painting are closely allied to those found in old Georgian icons, and suggest that origins of the cult of St. George lie far back in Ethiopian history. If the cult had not reached Ethiopia until the 14th century, as some writers suggest, it is very doubtful whether Constantine and Diocletian would be portrayed in this way.

To conclude this chapter, one may well ask why so many fascinating variants of the iconography of St. George are found on the ‘Borders of Byzantium’, but not in the heartland of Byzantium, especially in the city of Constantinople itself. For example, why do we not come across the variant which depicts Diocletian instead of the dragon, in icons from the ateliers of Constantinople? Ihe full story of the Diocletian persecution, the martyrdom of St. George under his cruel edicts against the Christians, and the subsequent liberation of the Church by Constantine, derives not from the peripheral territories, but from the area around central Byzantium, where Constantine reigned. It was from here that accounts of the Diocletian persecution were carried to outlying provinces and kingdoms by those who first brought the faith. Whether or not St. Nina was a refugee from the Diocletian persecution, the date of her arrival in Georgia certainly suggests that she brought with her the full story of that persecution, and also probably the story of St. George. These same stories would similarly have been taken south by Frumentius from his home city of Tyre, in Syria, and by the Coptic missionaries who followed him to spread the faith in Ethiopia, and similarly by those missionaries who took it northwards to Bulgaria.

It is therefore difficult to imagine why such elements of the story of St. George should have been selectively excluded from the iconography of the church in Constantinople in the early centuries. But perhaps it is wrong to assume that these elements were never a part of the iconography of the Saint in the metropolitan centre. It is possible that they were in fact originally an integral part of the iconography of the Saint throughout Byzantium, but that they disappeared in the metropolitan heartland during the century-long rule of the iconoclasts, while still surviving in outlying provinces and kingdoms such as Bulgaria, Georgia and Ethiopia.

Haussig, [6] in his History of Byzantine Civilisation, discusses the effect of Iconoclasm on some of the outlying provinces and kingdoms of the Empire. He says:

the provincial Byzantine culture which had been spreading in Russia and Bulgaria before the conversion of their princes found itself cut off from the mainstream of development in the Byzantine empire by reason of the iconoclastic controversy. Although the iconoclasts emerged victorious over the iconophiles, in Bulgaria and the Crimea the worship of icons continued. The Crimea put itself under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Katholikos of Georgia. The Georgian bishops broke with the heretical patriarchs of Constantinople and recognised the Patriarch of Jerusalem as their superior. In 759 bishop John of Doros in the Crimea was consecrated by the Georgian Katholikos. Thus close ecclesiastical connections were forged between Georgia and the Byzantine Crimea and these links were also reflected in the exteriors of the churches Bulgaria also detached itself from the Patriarch of Constantinople, since he supported the iconoclastic party.

Elsewhere in his ‘History of Byzantium’, Haussig goes on to say that Georgian influence, largely exercised through Georgian monastic foundations established in Bulgaria, was a factor of importance in the culture of that country, and that it significantly influenced Bulgarian church architecture and decoration. As for the Ethiopian Church, its culture had been closely influenced by that of pre-iconoclast metropolitan Byzantium, as evidenced by the design of some of their churches; but being Monophysites they were of course unaffected by the iconoclastic controversy. Traditional elements in their iconography of the Saints, as received from their Coptic mentors, would therefore have been preserved unchanged.
We thus get a picture of an iconoclastic metropolitan Byzantium, surrounded by a ring of iconophilic dependencies or associates, which had sufficient ecclesiastical autonomy to enable them to maintain and indeed to interchange their provincial patterns of iconography. After the end of the iconoclast controversy in 842 however, the Byzantines of Constantinople had to recreate their iconography. In great part they may have drawn on examples from the rich store of icons in the monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai, which had remained unaffected by the controversy; but most probably some elements of earlier iconography were never re-instated in the new pattern which emerged. This may explain why some of the traditional variants of St. George’s iconography are missing from the rather stereotyped post-iconoclast icons of metropolitan Byzantium, and why we find so much greater variety of themes in icons surviving in countries lying on the ‘Borders of Byzantium’.
 Finally, there is one element of Georgian iconography of St. George which may well have influenced the recreated iconography of St. George in the Byzantine heartland, through a kind of reverse indoctrination. Many post-iconoclast icons of St. George from Byzantine workshops carry a feature which, as far as the writer is aware, did not appear in pre-iconoclastic icons. This is the ‘Hand of God’, emerging from a disc or a cloud in one of the upper corners of the picture, sometimes projecting a ray downwards towards the head of the Saint. Although this feature is not exclusive to St. George in Byzantine icons, most instances of it are certainly to be found in St. George icons, and it later became a common element in icons and pictures of Saint George in both East and West.
 In some cases, it appears not in the form of a hand, but as a cloud, or as a face within a cloud or disc in the sky, or even in a burnished shield carried by the Saint. The face of the ‘Sun-God’ in one of the Romanian painted glass icons of St. George described earlier in this chapter is a striking example of this iconographical feature, and the painting of St. George by Uccello is one of the most familiar examples of its ‘cloud’ variant in Western art.

St George Ucello 1470
St George by Ucello 1470

It is highly probable that this feature relates to the merging of the story of St. George with Georgian myths derived from pagan worship of the Sun, the Moon and the Planets, as seen in the ancient Georgian icon displayed on the stamps of the short-lived independent Republic of Georgia, after the Russian revolution. The spread of this merged mythology throughout the Russian Empire, where it became prevalent in both icon and legend, is discussed in the next chapter. The face of the Sun-God in that early Georgian icon almost certainly pre-figured the face of God, and the hand of God, seen in later Christian icons of St. George in both Eastern and Western art.

If this is true, then it seems that the small and remote nation of Georgia, in the high mountains between the Black Sea and the Caspian, may through this symbol have had a significant influence on legend and art in the Christian world. Perhaps this will favorably tip the scales a little when Georgia’s most infamous son comes to judgement. I refer to a one-time student at Tbilisi seminary, born in the city of Gori (George), and originally named Josef Djugashvili. He was later renamed Stalin, and became the Soviet dictator who, at the height of his power, so savagely persecuted the Church of his youth, and so ruthlessly re-imposed the rule of the Russian Colossus upon his native land.





















[1] Scott-Fox D              Saint George, The Saint with Three Faces, London 1983

[2] Amiranashvili          Georgian Metalwork, London 1971

[3] Scott-Fox D              op cit n. 1

[4] Hughes W E                         The Postage Stamps of Georgia, Jnl Brit Phil Soc 1951

[5] Allen W E D             A History of the Georgian People, London, 1932

[6] Haussig H W            History of Byzantine Civilization, London 1971