For more than a thousand years the Eastern Roman Empire of Christian Byzantium maintained political continuity with the Empire of classical and pagan Rome. There was no such continuity in the West, however, where repeated waves of Germanic invasion largely destroyed the political structure of the old Roman Empire, except where Byzantium maintained its footholds, and where from time to time it succeeded in restoring control over limited areas of the western Mediterranean littoral. There was nevertheless an unbroken thread of cultural continuity that persisted throughout the Dark Ages of Western Europe, a continuity largely founded upon the ever growing strength and influence of the Christian church. The institutional structure of the church was essentially based upon that of the Roman Empire itself, and thus it provided an alternative framework for the maintenance of basic elements of civilisation in the west, despite the chaos and upheaval that followed the collapse of the Roman political system.
Even before the Goths and Burgundians and Lombards and Franks had overrun the heartland of the old Western Empire, these invaders were themselves adopting the religion of the Roman State which they were displacing, and they had therefore no reason to destroy the institutions and practices of the established church. When the Franks under Clovis, son of Childeric, seized power in Gaul, government largely remained in the hands of Bishops and Counts drawn from the Gallo-Roman aristocracy. Clovis, who died in 511, was converted to Catholic Christianity, and his rule was far more acceptable to these local dignitaries than were the Burgundians and Visigoths, who had earlier adopted the Arian heresy. The Franks were consequently far more successful than the other Germanic tribes had been in reconciling Romans and Germans, and hence there arose the great Frankish Kingdom which was destined to determine the future shape of European history.
Towards the end of the 7th century Pepin of Heristal, near Aachen, gained control of virtually the whole of Francia, and his son Charles Martel initiated the Carolingian dynasty which reached its peak of power under his grandson, Charlemagne (742-814). Apart from the British Isles, and the Iberian peninsula which by that time was under Moslem control, the Frankish Kingdom ruled by Charlemagne comprised almost the whole of the western part of the old Roman Empire. In addition, it stretched to the northwestern limits of Saxony, further even than the Roman writ had run. Charlemagne’s imperial coronation in Rome, on Christmas day 800, thus consummated a truly Imperial and Christian hegemony.
This new successor to the Western Roman Empire was however short-lived. Just like the Rus of the Kievian Empire, the Franks practiced the system of dividing royal territory between sons. Charlemagne himself had come to supreme power only because he had inherited the share of his brother Carloman. His successor Louis the Pious (814-840) was an only son, and thus he also controlled the whole Frankish Empire, but on his death partition and fragmentation was resumed. Francia was divided between his three sons, and from this point on successive divisions within the Carolingian family, and corresponding divisions of imperial territory between the various family members soon reduced the Empire itself to a political fiction.
The general pattern of division of this Empire between Louis’ three sons was nevertheless destined to prove remarkably persistent, and it has largely determined the pattern of demarcation and contention between 20th century European nations. A territory roughly corresponding to modern France went to one of his younger sons, a ‘Middle Kingdom’ which included all the principal imperial cities from Aachen southward, was assigned to the eldest brother Lothar, who assumed the title of Emperor, and the Germany of the Eastern Franks went to the other younger son.
The frontier established between Western Francia and the ‘Middle Kingdom’ was to remain the formal eastern boundary of France throughout the middle ages. Carolingian successors held sway over this kingdom until the death of Louis V in 987, when power was seized by the first of the line of the Capets, who were to rule France until the extinction of the monarchy in 1792. Although this kingdom was still under Frankish German control when Francia was partitioned, its population was still predominantly Gallo-Roman, and hence retained a variant of the Gallo-Roman language, while paradoxically also retaining the Germanic territorial name of Francia, later to become France.
The Germanic kingdom of Eastern Francia was divided in three by its first King, Louis the German, but was re-united under Arnulf of Bavaria in 887. It broke up yet again into the independent dukedoms of Bavaria, Swabia, Franconia, and Saxony, but eventually all of these dukedoms came under the control of Henry of Saxony, who with his son Otto I established the Ottonian Empire which proved a worthy and more stable successor to the Carolingian Empire. In contrast to the Carolingian dynasty, the Saxon Ottonians had no established caste of aristocrats to support them, and were therefore highly dependent upon support from the church. Otto I made an active alliance with the Byzantines, and he imported customs and ceremonial designed to emphasise the role of the monarchy as an institution consecrated by God. His son, Otto II, married a Byzantine princess, whose son Otto III had ambitious but unrealised ideas of renewing the status and grandeur of the old Roman Empire.
Geographically, the Germanic Empire established by the Ottonians comprised most of Charlemagne’s Empire, except for Western Francia. Its boundaries remained largely unchanged through three centuries, despite dynastic changes from Ottonian to Salian and to Hohenstaufen. It had largely taken control of the territories of the Middle Kingdom, including Lorraine and most of Italy, and exerted strong influence on the Papacy during its three centuries of power, up to around the year 1250. Thereafter, with the downfall of the Hoehenstaufen dynasty, its power declined vis a vis the growing power of the major western kingdoms of England, France and Spain, and the title of Holy Roman Emperor became eventually a mere title of aggrandisement to be peddled around between potential bidders. For half a millenium, however, despite periodic lapses of continuity, there had existed a significant political entity claiming some degree of succession to the Western Roman Empire. This is the background for our consideration of the cult of ‘St. George in the Western Empire’.
There is clear evidence of a growing cult of the Saint in Western Francia, even before the rise of the Carolingians. Childebert, a son of Clovis, the first Christian Merovingian King of Francia, built a monastery church near Paris in 542, dedicated to a St. Vincent who was apparently converted to the faith through St. George. According to Aymorius (Hist, de gest. Franc. Book 2), cited by Heylyn, relics of St. George were deposited in this church at the time of its consecration, along with those of several other holy saints. French devotion to St. George was also mentioned by Gregory of Tours in the 6th century.
We also know that a Frankish Bishop named Arculf went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land around the year 700, and that he visited the shrine of St. George at Lydda, bringing back stories of posthumous miracles of the Saint which were told to him there. In the course of a hair-raising voyage home, involving shipwreck off Iona, he recounted the story of his travels to a monk of Iona named Adamnan, whose record of Arculf’s journey is still extant. Undoubtedly his story was similarly recounted to the Christian faithful of his own Frankish diocese when he eventually reached home, thus spreading further the fame of St. George in Western Francia.
In later centuries this devotion grew strongly in West Francia. Charlemagne is said to have had the legends of the Saint translated into Old German, and according to tradition St. George and a saintly companion St. Maurice came to the aid of Charlemagne and the knight Roland in their battles against the Saracens. Still later, the Viking invaders, who contributed to the fragmentation of Western Francia in the 9th century, readily adopted Christianity after their arrival in Normandy. Even before the time of William the Conqueror they were staunch devotees of the Christian saints. In the century following the settlement of Rollo and his companions on the northern coasts of France, the Vikings turned Normans vied with one another for the glory of building churches and monasteries, and richly endowed them. To found a monastery was a demonstration that they had forsaken their barbaric past, and above all it was intended to expiate their misdeeds and to assure them a comfortable place in the hereafter. One of the greatest of their foundations was the famous Abbaye Saint-Georges de Boscherville near to Rouen, which was founded around the year 1060 by Raoul de Tancarville, the Grand Chamberlain of the future William the Conqueror.
Daoust has described this as the most impressive Romanesque Abbey Church of Upper Normandy. Today it stands in open countryside in splendid isolation, but in earlier times it was the centre of one of the wealthiest and busiest of all the great Norman abbeys. It was erected on the site of an ancient small Merovingian church dedicated to St. Martin, the Apostle of the Gauls, who as Bishop of Tours was chosen by many small Christian communities as their protector in the years of emergence from paganism. It seems that this small church of St. Martin contained a chapel consecrated to St. George, the favorite military saint of the Byzantines. In choosing to build his new monastery on this site, de Tancarville was apparently determined to outdo the many rival monastic foundations already established by the Duke and his barons in the fertile lands around Rouen and Caen.
Initially it is probable that the monastery was simply a collection of buildings around the original small church of St. Martin and St. George, but when Raoul de Tancarville died in 1080, he left everything which he possessed in land and fiefs, and in gold, silver and ornaments, for the maintenance of his college and its canons. Another half century was to pass before his ambition was truly realised with the completion of the great Abbey Church of St. George which today dominates the landscape between Rouen and the Seine. The humble oratory of St. George in the little church of St. Martin de Boscherville had been transformed into a vast and magnificent foundation which could compare with the most superb in the Duchy of Normandy.
The secular canons who initially occupied the monastery were replaced by Benedictines from Saint-Evroult-en-Ouche in 1114, and it was during their occupancy that the great new Abbey Church was completed, thanks to the generosity of Henry I of England, Matilda his daughter, and Henry II. The Chapter House, which also still remains, was added some 50 years later. Most of the Cloisters, and all of the other monastic buildings were destroyed after the French Revolution, but the Abbey Church itself was fortunately saved from destruction by being taken over to replace the local parish church of St. Martin de Boscherville, which had collapsed through a most providential ‘Act of God’ . The architectural quality of the massive Abbey Church is outstanding, and its arches and column-capitals exhibit some superb Norman decoration. Unfortunately, apart from a St. George on the carved woodwork of a medieval confessional, and another probable St. George on one of the capitals, there is little iconography of the Saint to be seen. According to the Dictionnaire Geographique of Thomas Corneille, however, there was earlier a gigantic equestrian statue of St. George and the Dragon close to the High Altar.
In 1736 the Maurist monks, who had by then replaced the Benedictines, and who had somewhat ‘progressive’ taste in artistic matters, decided that It was too gothic’, so they had it demolished! So we have to be content with the architectural glory of this great monument to proclaim the devotion of some seven centuries to his name.
Returning to Norman times, the cult of St. George in Western Francia, by then known as the Kingdom of France, was greatly enhanced by the stories of his intervention at Antioch and Jerusalem, as recounted by the triumphant knights returning from the First Crusade. These crusaders largely came from central and northern France, including Normandy, and as already recounted in some detail in Chapter 4, many monuments to St. George depicting episodes of that crusade are still to be found as wall paintings in churches and monasteries throughout their homelands. Over the next two centuries the cult of the Saint grew further, and indeed became so widespread that he might well have become the official patron saint of France, had it not been for the intense rivalry for sovereignty over the Kingdom of France that emerged in the 14th century, between the French Capetian and the English Plantagenet families This rivalry is well illustrated by the history of two Orders of Chivalry which were initiated almost simultaneously by these two royal houses, the French ‘Order of the Star’, and the English ‘Order of St. George named the Garter’.
John the Good, then Duke of Normandy, submitted proposals for the foundation of his ‘Order of the Star’ to Pope Clement VI in 1342. In 1344 the Pope issued several bulls approving the foundation of the Order, which was to consist of 200 Knights, with a College of Canons. The Patrons were to be Our Lady and St. George, and the Knights were to meet for religious ceremonies on the feast days of these two Patrons. Before the Order could be firmly established, however, the French were defeated at Crecy by the English army led by Edward III and his eldest son Edward Price of Wales.
This defeat led to the abandonment of John’s original plans, and very shortly afterwards, in 1348, Edward III established the English ‘Order of St. George named the Garter’, similarly dedicated to our Lady and St. George. Around the same time Edward proclaimed St. George Patron Saint of England and of the English people. As a result, John the Good, who became King of France in 1350, modified his original proposal, and in 1351 his ‘Order of the Star’ emerged under the sole patronage of Our Lady, since the patronage of St. George had by then been pre-empted by Edward Ill’s initiatives. Under its new patronage one hundred and forty Knights of this rival French Order had been created by the year 1352.
A few years later, in 1356, there came the disastrous defeat of the French army at Poitiers. One story records that eighty-nine of the Knights of the ‘Order of the Star’ were killed in ambush in Brittany, and the Black Prince’s capture of King John at Poitiers seems to have administered the coup de grace to the Order. From then on St. Denys seems to have been the focus of French patronal devotion, in both peace and war. St. George was henceforth left to their English foes, and there is little evidence of any further development of his cult in the French part of the old Frankish Empire.
There is however quite a different story to relate regarding the German part of the old Frankish Empire. There the growing cult of devotion to St. George, which was evident throughout the Frankish Kingdom even before Carolingian times, seems to have been further stimulated and encouraged by close links between the German Kings and the Byzantine Emperors. These links were established in the earliest centuries of the Christian Roman Empire. A church dedicated to St. George, and served by several Greek Bishops in succession, was already established in Mainz by the year 600, in Merovingian times, well before the time of Charlemagne. One of the earliest and best known European poems on St. George, by Venantius Fortunatus (c. 600) is still preserved in Mainz Cathedral. In 764 a church dedicated to St. George was built in Weisenbach in Swabia, and Abbot Fulrad of St. Denis refers in his Testament to a relic of St. George in Adalongo (777), which is also mentioned in a ‘ratification’ document of King Ludwig in Regensburg. The best documented example of a pre-Ottonian dedication to St. George however is the church in Oberzell on the island of Reichenau in Lake Constance, built around the year 890 by Abbot Hatto III. At that time the Benedictine Abbey of Reichenau was one of the most important cultural centres for Christian art and literature in the whole of Europe. It had close links with Mainz, where one of the earliest German churches dedicated to St. George had been built. There are also records which show that as early as the 9th century members of its community used to travel to the Imperial city of Byzantium.
Abbot Hatto was the ’eminence grise’ of Arnulf of Bavaria, the last East Frankish Carolingian Emperor, who succeeded in unifying the German dukedoms of Eastern Francia as a precursor to the Ottonians. As regent for Arnulfs son Louis the Child (900-911), Hatto governed the German Kingdom for the last member of the Carolingian dynasty. He was elected Abbot of Reichenau in 888, and Archbishop of Mainz in 891, and he accompanied Arnulf on the Frankish invasions of Italy (894-896). When Pope Formosus crowned Arnulf as Emperor in February 896, Hatto requested and was given the pallium and the head of St. George for his monastery at Reichenau. These relics were duly deposited in a church dedicated to St. George, which had been newly built for that purpose at the eastern end of the three-mile long monastery island in Lake Constance.
A church of St. George has stood there for the last thousand years. What we see today obviously does not look precisely like Hatto’s first building, but the extensions and decorations of Ottonian times do not seem to have significantly changed its essential character. It is a small, rather squat cruciform church, with a square tower, and is in many respects the antithesis of the great Norman edifice of Saint-George de Boscherville. It is nevertheless a charming and almost unique heritage from the cult and devotion to St. George in the Germany of the first millenium.
Hatto probably built initially only that part which is the crypt of the present church, and this is where he laid to rest the head and pallium of the Saint, as he received them from Formosus. In his classic book on ‘Byzantine Civilisation’ Haussig suggests that the Western Church’s adoption of the cult of Byzantine saints, together with the acquisition of some of their relics, had a marked influence on the architecture of churches erected for these relics. It was apparently considered that the bones of a saint should never be placed in a building smaller than that in which they had previously been housed. Thus — according to Haussig — the church of St. George in Oberzell on Reichenau, as erected by Hatto III, was a copy of the Saint’s martyrium in Ortakoi in Cappadocia, which some legends identify as the place of St. George’s burial. Haussig considers the vaulting and the building technique of the walls of the crypt to be reminiscent of Byzantine work, and he suggests that Greek workmen may have helped in the building operations.
The superstructure of the church later erected over the crypt, with the superbly executed frescoes which still adorn its walls, make this a gem of Ottonian art and architecture. Prominent among the frescoes is one depicting the New Testament scene of Christ calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee. Its style and design show that it was almost certainly executed by the artist from the Reichenau community who depicted the same scene in the famous manuscript Evangelium of Otto III which is today in the State Library in Munich1 . This scene later became widely associated in Europe with the iconography of St. George, perhaps partly because of its association with the cult of the Saint in the frescoes at Reichenau.
Since the time of Abbot Hatto III there has been an unbroken continuity of monastic control in Reichenau, which certainly guarantees that the head which he deposited there has remained undisturbed in the crypt beneath the high altar of the church of St. Georg in Oberzell. This does not of course guarantee that it is the head which Pope Zacharias discovered in St. John Lateran in Rome a century and a half earlier, and which he subsequently deposited with great ceremony in San Giorgio de Velabro. As already suggested in Chapter 5, the ambitious Abbot Hatto may perhaps have been deceived by the weak and elderly Pope Formosus, and the true relic may still be where Zacharias deposited it in Rome. But in the light of eternity it does not really matter. There can be no doubt that the devout crowds who, on the feast of St. George, throng around St. Giorgio de Velabro in Rome and around St. Georg in Oberzell on Reichenau, will all be equally blessed by the Saint whom they revere.
Other relics of the Saint were deposited in German churches dedicated to him during the Ottonian era. Volbach records one such in Halberstadt in 974. He also records that at that time a special liturgy was devoted to the Saint, for use on his Feast Days in the German Church. The cult was however by no means confined to cities in the German heartland. One church dedicated to the Saint was established in Villateurinobei Speier, in Prague, around the year 980, and this apparently served as a centre for the spread of the devotion in the Eastern marches of the Ottonian Empire.
Rhodes describes yet another ancient church of St. George, which exists today, on the Hradcany in Prague, a few yards east of St. Vitus’ Cathedral. It is one of four churches within the castle precincts, and is the oldest and the only Romanesque basilica remaining among the churches of Prague. Originally a small chapel erected by Duke Vratislav I in 916, it was rebuilt as a church between 1150 and 1170. In the 14th century Charles IV, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, granted the abbess of its convent the title of princess, and the right to place the crown on the head of the queen of Bohemia. A tympanum depicting St. George and the Dragon was added over one of the portals to the church in early Renaissance times.
The cult of St. George grew strongly during the reign of Henry II, the last ruler of the Ottonian dynasty, largely through the personal devotion of that remarkable Saint, King and Emperor. Henry, who was born in 972, and died in 1024, was an extraordinary man and monarch, exhibiting a most unusual amalgam of religious devotion and political pragmatism. He was educated by St. Wolfgang, Bishop of Ratisbon, and in 995 succeeded his father in the Duchy of Bavaria: he was chosen Emperor in 1002 on the death of his cousin Otto III. His upbringing instilled a deep devotion to the Church, especially to St. Lawrence the martyr, and at one time he aspired to become a Benedictine monk. The Abbot of Verdun, the monastery he wished to enter, put him under obedience to continue the administration of the empire, after which he continued to work hard for harmonious relations between Church and State, despite the handicap of his serious personal afflictions.
To the common people he was Henry the Lame, or Henry the Paralytic, and worst affliction of all, he was impotent. In his desperation he imagined that his wife Cunegond was unfaithful to him, and he forced her to undergo the test of walking barefoot on hot coals to prove her fidelity. Her courage brought her through this ordeal, and many years later she, as well as Henry, was formally canonised as a saint. A curious tradition relates that when Henry was dying, demons came to claim his soul, because of his unjust accusation of his innocent wife Cunegond. He was saved only by the intervention of St. Lawrence, who threw into the scales of judgment the golden chalice which Henry had earlier dedicated to his childhood Saint.
Despite this earlier attachment to St. Lawrence, it was St. George on whom he relied for support in the course of his political and military struggles to promote the peace and happiness of his realm. One of his greatest ecclesiastical achievements was the establishment of the Archbishopric of Bamberg, where he built a great cathedral. Today the famous statue of ‘The Rider of Bamberg’ in the Choir, thought to represent the Emperor Henry, bears testimony to this historic achievement. The Choir of the cathedral was dedicated to St. George, and the monks in charge were known as the Canons of St. George. Contemporary records, cited by Volbach declare that when Henry died, “St. George and Our Lady together led him to God’s throne”.
Being childless, the two ‘conjugal virgins’ Henry and Cunegond bequeathed most of their worldly goods to the cathedrals of Bamberg and Basel. In Basel, as in Bamberg, Henry’s devotion to St. George is to this day still recalled, by the magnificent ‘George and Dragon’ statuary on the facade of the old cathedral, carved from sandstone and mounted on a high pilaster which marks the former entrance to the northern bell tower. On the corresponding southern pilaster there is an equestrian statue of St. Martin, the familiar companion of St. George in western hagiology. Both of these impressive equestrian figures are more than life size. The original 12th or 13th century figure of St. George crashed to the ground in 1372, and was replaced by a replica. Part of the torso of the original figure is still preserved in the Episcopal ‘Museum of Originals’ in Basel, together with a well preserved Dragon of the same original group, which came down somewhat earlier, in 1343. Inside the cathedral itself one can find a charming medieval St. George who stands with his foot on the upturned dragon, the figures being carved through the end panel of one of the old choir stalls located in the ambulatory just inside the west door.
Henry’s devotion to St. George gave a tremendous impetus to his cult, throughout the German heartland of the Western Empire. Through the rest of the 11th century, after Henry’s death in 1024, many churches and monasteries, with both clerical and lay congregations, were dedicated to the name of the Saint. Volbach records that the Monastery of St. George in Schwarzwald was founded in 1097, to be followed one year later by the founding of a Georgian church in Lana bei Meran in the Tyrol. Many monasteries and churches were also dedicated to the Saint in Swabia, and from these centres his cult became widespread throughout that area. Among the early church foundations were Constance (1158), Mergenheim (1274), Niederlana bei Vollan (1143), and Ochsenhausen (1272). Many such foundations have now disappeared, but new ones soon arose to guarantee continuance of the cult of devotion to St. George.
Quite apart from churches and monasteries, lay congregations and brotherhoods devoted to the Saint abounded, and secular developments of the cult included the famous Georgespiele, folk-plays portraying the now familiar scenes derived from Voragine’s Golden Legend. The devotion was especially lively in places such as Limburg and Friedburgin Oberhessen, where the cult was well established at an early date. The significance of the Brotherhood of St. George is testified in the ratification document of Berthold von Henneburg in the year 1492, which describes how the Friedburggrafen held the right to wear a gold chain carrying a picture of the Saint. Members of the brotherhood wore rings with pictures of St. George, and various artifacts of the company were adorned with either the insignia of the Saint or his picture.
In the upper ranks of medieval German society, the cult was manifested in various Knightly Orders of Chivalry dedicated to the Saint. These seem to have derived from the Knightly Brotherhood founded in Burgundy in 1390, after Philipp von Miolaus brought relics of St. George back to Rougement, on return from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. As a distinguishing mark, each member of this Order wore on a blue band a golden figure of a mounted St. George with the Dragon. After the spread of this Order to Germany, this and similar Orders became very strongly established in Swabia. The Emperor Sigismund was deeply involved with one such Georgian Knightly Order in 1422, and it was he who presented a precious Georgian relic, the Heart of St. George, to the English ‘Order of St. George named the Garter’, on the occasion of his election to membership of that Order.
Emperor Frederick III established the Order of St. George in Carinthia in 1436, and this was revived and strengthened in 1493 to support the Christians in their wars against the Turks. Even more deeply involved, however, was the Emperor Maximilian, who as member of the Swabian Order of St. George, fostered devotion to the Saint not only in Swabia, but also in his Austrian homeland. He ranks with Emperor Henry II in the intensity of his devotion to the Saint, and what Henry achieved 500 years earlier, Maximilian almost surpassed. In St. George, who fought against the infidels and protected Christianity, who for his beliefs suffered and died, Maximilian perceived the highest ideal of knighthood, which he strove to emulate.
His devotion for the Saint went so far that he even had his likeness used as a model for a portrayal of the equestrian Saint carved by Burgkmair. In this woodcarving one angel holds the George Shield, and another holds his Banner with the Red Cross. The strength of the Emperor’s feelings about the Saint comes out clearly in his witness for the status of the Georgian Order of Knighthood in 1511.
” I, who from youth have always followed the Martyr St. Jorg, and with whose help and approval I have achieved many glorious victories over my foes — I follow the footsteps of my father and my forbears, for the love of faith and piety, which I show towards God, and declare that the Order of St. George shall herewith retain and renew all of its ancient rights”
He also had himself portrayed as St. George on the Triumphal Arch in Vienna, within a circle of knights. He dedicated the famous Benedictine monastery at Weltenburg to St. George, and in 1503 he wrote a morality booklet on the cult of the Saint, invoking him not only as a helper for Christians fighting for their faith, but also as a ‘Holy Helper’ in the social battle against the ‘Malafrancosia’, syphilis. The cult of the Fourteen Holy Helpers was especially prominent in Germany in the 15th and 16th centuries, and of the Fourteen, St. George was the one most widely invoked. As a consequence, St. George medals proliferated throughout central Europe, and their popularity persisted well into the 20th century. In Hungary especially, medals showing St. George and the Dragon on one side, and the scene of Christ calming the storm on the Sea of Gallilee on the other, were frequently produced in precious metals for noble families, in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The list of dedications and monuments to St. George throughout the eastern part of the old Western Empire is too extensive to be considered in detail here. Volbach lists between 400 and 500 place names. Many of these are densely packed within the area of old Swabia, which included not only parts of southern Germany, and Austria, but also what is today called Switzerland. Many gems of Georgian art are to be found in Swiss towns and villages, and among them is one of the greatest Georgian monuments in Europe. This is the beautiful church of S. George, Sogn Gieri in Romansch, in the little village of Rhazuns, at the foot of the Swiss Alps, close to the city of Chur. In 1989, the writer and his wife made a pilgrimage to this shrine, one of the most memorable of many excursions undertaken ‘In Search of St. George’.
Rhazuns lies in the upper reaches of the Rhine valley, not far from the source of this great river in the Rhine glacier, high up in the snow covered Alps. It was the site of a Roman settlement, Ratiodunum, strategically placed on the route to one of the key Alpine crossings, the San Bernadino pass. It lies about 10 miles south-west of the medieval city of Chur, on the narrow gauge railway, the Rhatische Bahn, built just a century ago to provide access to the string of villages and hamlets which stretches up the valley to the ski resort of St. Moritz.
Our 1989 pilgrimage was the culmination of several abortive earlier attempts. In1987,having read that Rhazuns was a village ‘close to Basel’, we planned to fit in an afternoon visit during a two day business trip to that city. Our business friends in Basel were somewhat amused, pointing out that Rhazuns was 200 miles from Basel, close to Chur, a three-hour train journey from Basel. Needless to say, that plan for an afternoon excursion was abandoned. A hoped for visit the following year were abandoned through health problems, but finally concrete plans were worked out with our business friends who cooperated in arranging transport and accomodation in Chur. Just before leaving Basel, it occurred to us that the church might not be open to casual visitors, so we asked our friends to telephone Rhazuns to check the situation. As we had feared, the church is indeed normally closed, but it seemed that the key could be obtained from the railway stationmaster, who attends the railway station for a few hours each day. In his absence, the key would be found hanging on a key rack in the station waiting room, provided another visitor had not removed it!
It all sounded a rather uncertain basis for a two day trip across Switzerland, so somewhat apprehensively we boarded the train from Basel to Zurich and onward to Chur. En route, we studied a brochure which one of our friends had provided, concerning the church of Sogn Gieri, a reprint from the encyclopedic “Schweizerische Kunstfuhrer”, which covers in surprisingly full detail practically all the old churches and historic works of art in the country.
We learned of the legend relating to Sogn Gieri, according to which, at some time in the middle of the 4th century, St. George had taken refuge from his persecutors, in the Rhatische district of the Grisons. There he set about actively spreading the Christian faith. One day, when travelling from Ems to Domleschg, he was ambushed by his pursuers from the other side of the Alps. He escaped from them through an extraordinary leap on horseback across a gorge close to Rhazuns, which carries the turbulent waters of the Rhine down from its glacial Alpine source to the plain below. The leap was so powerful that the impact of landing on the far side tore off all four of the horseshoes of his steed. On a hill close to that spot the church of Sogn Gieri was built, and to this day four still hang on its door. According to this brochure, the beautiful little church which today nestles within a dense plantation of trees, on the small but steep hill adjacent to the Rhine ravine, dates from the 14th century. The Chur Nekrolog however records the existence of ‘eccles. S. Georgii in Peneduz’ in the first half of the 13th century, and there is also a record of a church (unnamed) having been on the site in 960, in the reign of Emperor Otto I. Excavations within the church, carried out in 1962, discovered remains of three earlier churches, the earliest of them dating from the Carolingian period. Whether or not the legend of St. George’s leap across the Rhine is true, this is certainly a very ancient foundation, dating from the earliest centuries of Western Christendom.
The brochure also carried text and illustrations detailing the remarkable wall paintings which cover the inner walls of Sogn Gieri. This foretaste of pleasures to come, coupled with the comforts of Swiss train travel, seemed to reduce the three hour journey past lakes and mountains to a pleasant interlude, and we were soon ensconced in the attractive small ‘Hotel Due de Rohan’, on the outskirts of medieval Chur. No one in the hotel seemed to know anything about Rhazuns and Sogn Gieri, but next day the Information Office near the railway station soon put us on the way to our destination. By mid morning we were on the narrow gauge electric railway, speeding up the Rhine valley between the towering mountains on the twenty minute trip to Rhazuns, in search of a key, and in search of Sogn Gieri.
Study of a small map of the area, picked up at the Information Office, showed that we were due to pass the small village of Reichenau, not to be confused with the island of Reichenau on Lake Constance, where St. George’s head, taken from San Giorgio in Velabro, was deposited by Abbott Hatto III in the church of St. George in Oberzell. The map also made it clear that Sogn Gieri was in open country a mile or more from the railway station, so we prepared for a pleasant walk across the meadows in the hot sunny June morning. At Rhazuns station we disembarked along with two Dutch ladies, who were also apparently bound for Sogn Gieri, not in their case in search of St. George, but in search of the famous wall paintings.
In the little waiting room we all looked anxiously for the promised key. A handwritten note just above the guichet read ‘Schlussel’, with an arrow pointing to an empty nail on the adjacent wall. Baffled, our Dutch companions hammered on the guichet, and attracted the attention of a uniformed official on the other side. He looked at his watch and indicated that we should all come back at 12 noon, when the ‘Stationmaster’ would be available. It soon became clear that he was himself the stationmaster, but that he was determined not to respond to our needs outside opening time. Eventually however he relented, when the Dutch ladies indicated that they wished to leave their heavy rucksacks before embarking on the mile-long walk to Sogn Gieri, and he so far unbent as to indicate that another party had earlier set off with the key.
The younger and more agile Dutch ladies soon strode ahead on the rough beaten track across the fields. We followed more slowly towards the wooded hill crowned by a church spire, which matched that in the photograph on the brochure. When we arrived below it, however, the spire had disappeared from view, there was no sign of any upward path, and the Dutch ladies were already a half-mile further on, unsuccessfully seeking the route to our destination. But the sound of voices above caused us to pause, and we then spotted a very narrow overgrown track which soon broadened and climbed steeply up through the trees. Five to ten minutes later we were there, to find the church door opened, and to find the church itself filled to capacity by a crowd of chattering schoolgirls, armed with notebooks and drawing pads, under the direction of a large and harrassed and amiable schoolmistress.
We rested on the church steps to draw breath after the climb, and to wait for a lull in the chattering within. Eventually it subsided somewhat, and we entered to see the treasure of Sogn Gieri. It was a feast well worth all of the effort that had been expended. The whole of the interior walls of the lovely little church are covered with medieval wall paintings in superb condition, and unlike those in the church of S. Georg in Oberzell at Reichenau, where there is no sign of St. George himself, he is the theme of a substantial and prominent part of these paintings in the church of Sogn Gieri at Rhazuns.
According to experts, the wall paintings in Sogn Gieri were executed by two unnamed painters. The older of these, dating from the first half of the 14th century, is known as the Waltensburger Meister, so called because he also produced paintings in the church at Waltensburg in this area, as well as in Chur Cathedral, Maienfeld Schloss Brandis, Dusch, and Sogn Paul in Rhazuns. The second painter, called the Meister von Rhazuns, whose style is quite distinct, though also of very high quality, worked in the second half of the 14th century. All of the paintings depicting St. George in Sogn Gieri were executed by the Waltensburger Meister. They include a cycle of twelve scenes of the martyrdom and miracles of St. George on the Choir Arch, and an unusual and most impressive scene of St. George with the Dragon on the north-west wall.
The painting of St George and the dragon is of particular interest in a wider context. It is 210 cm high x 690cm wide (roughly 7 feet high by 23 feet wide, occupying more than one half of the length of the upper level of the north-west wall. In content it is a fairly conventional St. George and Dragon, with the princess standing behind the mounted Saint with her hands together in prayer. The Saint carries a shield which surprisingly bears a white cross on a red background, and the horse coverings also bear a design of similar but smaller shields. The Saint is in the conventional act of plunging his lance into the Dragon’s opened mouth, but the Dragon itself is most unusual. It stands erect like a pouter pigeon, with decorative Chinese dragon wings erect, looking somewhat surprised, and certainly not very fearsome.
There is only one other such Dragon in Georgian hagiography, and that is the Dragon in Carpaccio’s comparable scene in the chapel of San Giorgio degli Schiavoni in Venice. That also depicts a pouter-pigeon type of Dragon, with wings reminiscent of Chinese dragon wings. And although dimensionally smaller, it is also a picture of similar proportions, being 144cmx 360cm (4 feet by 12 feet). There are no other major paintings of the Saint of such proportions, as far as the writer is aware.
The Sogn Gieri painting was done in the first half of the 14th century, probably close to 1350. The San Giorgio degli Schiavone painting was done one and a half centuries later, at the very beginning of the 16th century. There are of course major differences in style between the techniques of the two painters, and in the detailed content of the two pictures, but their general shape and pattern, including the interposition of trees between the Princess, the Saint and the Dragon, strongly suggests that Carpaccio may have based the shape and pattern of his great work on that of the pre-existent work of the Waltensburger Meister. This is of course sheer speculation, but Venice and Rhazuns are not too far apart, and Carpaccio may well have travelled across the San Bernadino pass in his early years, to have seen the Rhazuns paintings, which at that time must have been very well known in church painting circles.
The twelve scenes of the martyrdom and miracles of St. George on the Choir Arch, illustrating his ‘Passion’ as related in ancient documents, are beautifully executed. Although several of these depict the horrific tortures to which the Saint was subjected, they do not have the gruesome character of the corresponding scenes which illustrate the Ethiopian ‘Passion’. There is one painting, for example, which shows a very relaxed St. George sitting in a vessel presumably filled with boiling oil, while his head is being crushed with large stones wielded by two energetic persecutors. To the left of this scene, the haloed Saint is shown in another scene, praying for the Princess Alexandria, who is strung up by her hair and about to have her head chopped off, but who also looks very relaxed.
There was originally another St. George and Dragon by the Waltensburger Meister at Sogn Gieri; not inside, but outside the church. It was on the southeast wall, but unfortunately only a few fragments, including the Saint’s haloed head and parts of his horse, now remain. When complete and freshly painted, it must have been a striking invitation to the feast of paintings by the master within the church. It was originally accompanied on the same wall by a monumental St. Christopher of similar scale and by the same hand, but even fewer fragments of this painting remain. The original character and scale of these external paintings can be best appreciated by a visit to Sogn Paul in Rhazuns, on the other side of the village, where a monumental St. Christopher by the Waltensburger Meister remains in almost perfect condition, on the external east wall. Inside this church of Sogn Paul, on the south wall of the Choir, there is a baroque wall painting of St. George and the Dragon. Its indifferent quality brings home to one the outstanding quality of the paintings of the Waltensburger Meister.
The church of Sogn Gieri is no longer in regular use, but even as late as the 18th century churchgoers from Rhazuns and neighbouring Bonaduz used to attend mass there in the summer months. Today both communities look after the building, and processions are held each year on the feast days of St. George and St. Mark, and in the week of Corpus Christi.
After the visit to these churches, we encountered once more our two Dutch ladies, at the only place in the village of Rhazuns where a ‘pub lunch’ could be obtained. They told us that earlier they had visited a bookshop in Chur, and had been shown a superbly illustrated book on the wall paintings of the area, called ‘Gotische Wandmalereien in Graubunden’, by Alfons Raimann. Reluctantly, they had decided not to purchase it , because it was far to heavy to carry in their backpacks. On return to Chur, we went to the bookshop which they had described, found the book, bought it, and carried its four Kilos all the way back to England.
Raimann declares that “St. Georg zu Rhazuns is the richest example of a completely painted medieval church in Switzerland”, and a substantial part of the text and illustration of this volume are devoted to the paintings of this church. His beautifully illustrated record of the medieval wall paintings in this and in some 45 other churches and lay buildings in the area makes clear the oustanding wealth of such work in Graubunden, the ‘Land of 150 valleys’ in the extreme south east of Switzerland. It also serves however to point up the outstanding quality of that in Sogn Gieri in Rhazuns.
He describes and reproduces several other excellent wall paintings of St. George in the area, including a particularly charming one in the church of St. Peter zu Mistail, in Alvaschein, a small village not far from Rhazuns. This painting shows the standing figure of a very youthful Saint St. George, (Plate ) , holding vertically in his right hand a lance-like cross. His thick crop of curly, reddish-brown hair, true to traditional iconography, contrasts strangely with the pink baby-like face of the Saint.
The location of this figure, in the very centre of the apse, implies a very special devotion to the saint in this church, even though its dedication is to St. Peter. The status of the Saint is even further enhanced by the fact that a much larger painting in the apse, to his left, which is unfortunately in rather fragmentary condition, shows the scene of the equestrian battle of St. George with the Dragon. The matching painting to his right shows a quite charming Epiphany. All of these Alvaschein paintings are dated as around 1400-1420, and are attributed to an unnamed Meister von Mistai.
Despite the evident excellence of the other wall paintings in Graubunden, as described by Raimann, none can truly match the work of the Waltensburger Meister in the church of Sogn Gieri in Rhazuns. His work in this church undoubtedly makes it one of the really great medieval monuments to St. George in Western Christendom.
So far this chapter has dealt with the cult of St. George in the Western and Eastern parts of the self-styled Roman Empire to the West of Byzantium. There was however a Middle Kingdom, bequeathed by Louis the Pious to his son Lothar. Following Lothar’s death, much of the territory of this Middle Kingdom was alternately claimed and controlled by either Western Francia or Eastern Francia, but it nevertheless survived as an independent entity for several centuries, and even today its remnants exist in the Low Countries and Luxembourg.
For a time, in the 14th and 15th centuries, it seemed that the Middle Kingdom might re-emerge as a permanent and powerful kingdom capable of holding its own against both Eastern and Western Francia. Under four able and ambitious Valois Dukes of Burgundy, between 1384 and 1477, an apparently powerful kingdom was formed from a patchwork of counties and dukedoms. The fourth and last of these Valois Dukes was Charles the Bold, and he controlled a swathe of territory stretching from the two Burgundies in the south through Lorraine and Luxembourg to Flanders, Brabant and Holland in the north. But he failed to establish an adequate political framework for his apparently powerful kingdom, and after his death it soon fell apart, to be partitioned between the successors of Western and Eastern Francia.
Despite this, some cultural elements of the Burgundian State persisted, and among them was the cult of St. George which had originally been brought back from the Holy Land by Geoffrey of Boulogne, Duke of Lorraine, who with his Lotharingian troops played such a dominant role in the first Crusade. His men established the cult of the Saint in their homelands just as the Normans did in Northern France and England. It was further strengthened when Philipp von Miolaus brought back to Rougemont in 1390 the relics of St. George which he had acquired in the Holy Land, and formed the knightly Brotherhood of St. George which later spread to Swabia. He was the first ‘baton-master’ of this Order, and it was later strengthened under the patronage of Philip the Bold, his grandson Philip the Good, and Charles the Bold.
The devotion of Charles the Bold to St. George was evidenced in the famous reliquary which he presented to Liege Cathedral in expiation of his destruction of Liege in 1468,and which is today in the Musee d’ Art Religieux in Liege. It shows Charles kneeling beneath a youthful St. George, who stands with his legs entwined by a serpent-like dragon, and who is doffing his helmet in a curiously 19th century gesture. Another helmet, adorned with feathers, is on the ground in front of the kneeling Charles. This work is a superb example of the medieval goldsmith’s art.
This gift in expiation seems to have encouraged an already strong devotion to the Saint in Brabant, the precursor of modern Belgium. All of the major cities had their Guild of St Joris, generally associated with the practice of archery. One of the best examples was the ‘Arbalesters Guild of St. George’ in Bruges. Although this no longer functions actively, its old medieval Guild Hall survives as a museum for paintings and medieval artifacts, and representatives of the Guild play a major role in the annual procession of the Holy Blood on Ascension Day in Bruges. Six Guildsmen lead the procession, wearing picturesque medieval costume, and carrying the banner of St. George, displaying a large red cross, and the name Sint Joris.
There is also a famous painting featuring St. George, by Jan Van Eyck, in the Groeningen Museum in Bruges. This is the ‘Virgin with the Canon’, showing the enthroned Madonna with Child, with the mitred 4th century Bishop of Rheims, St. Donatian, Patron Saint of Bruges, standing on her right. Canon Joris Van der Paele kneels on her left, and behind him stands the armoured figure of St. George, a rather middle aged man who is raising his helmet just as in the Liege reliquary. His left hand points toward the kneeling figure of the Canon whom he is presenting. St. George’s armour is in blue and gold, and the banner which he holds in the crook of his left arm carries a golden cross on a blue background, most unusual colours for the flag of the Saint, though they do recall the colours of the English ‘Order of St. George named the Garter’.
There are many other examples of the Georgian cult in Belgium, but perhaps the most popular demonstration is the ‘Combat de Lumecon’ which takes place each year just after midday on Trinity Sunday on the Grand Place of the city of Mons. This is a most esoteric and complicated affair, in which St. George, supported by eight ‘chinchins’, fights against the Dragon, which is accompanied by five devils. The origins of this combat are obscure, but there was a brotherhood or Guild of St. George in the city of Mons in the mid-13th century, and the annual battle may have started in connection with the great plague of 1349, known in England as the Black Death. Apparently a knight from Brabant had travelled to the Holy Land, and returned with the head of a crocodile, which was listed in the inventory of the Treasury of the Counts of Hainault in 1409. This seems to have served as the head of the Dragon, in a folk play representing St. George in combat with the pestilence, represented by this crocodile-dragon. Local records contain various poems and ballads associated with this annual event, which involves a complicated series of manoeuvres between the different persons and devils and chinchins, whose name is thought by some to be the ‘chiens’ of St. George, his hunting dogs.
Whatever the precise significance and interpretation of the various elements of the annual ‘Combat de Lumecon’, this is a great occasion for the people of Mons and the surrounding districts of Belgium. Here, in this 20th century remnant of the Middle Kingdom, which is now at the very heart of the European Community, the cult of St. George is still live and active, at least for one exciting day in the year.
So throughout the Western Empire there are still fragments of the widespread and intense devotion to St. George which characterised European society in the Middle Ages. The intensity of that medieval devotion is perhaps best summed up in a striking example of pictorial homage to the Saint, displayed in a miniature from a prayer book which is now in the British Library, but which originated from the Low Countries. This painting, dating from around 1500, shows the great Princes of Europe gathered together, kneeling in homage to St. George, whose armoured and haloed figure stands on an altar astride a somewhat defiant dragon, while holding aloft a three forked banner bearing his symbol of the red Cross. An onlooker sports his other medieval symbol, the plume of feathers which recalls his role as Patron Saint of Archers.
From left to right the kneeling Princes can be identified from the insignia displayed on their magnificent robes, as Charles VIII of France, the bearded Frederick III of Germany, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, Archduke Philip of Burgundy, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Henry VII of England. The solemn expressions on their faces depict a profound devotion to St. George, acknowledging him as the great Martyr saint of Western Church and Empire, just as for a thousand years before the great Byzantine Princes had acknowledged him as the Megalomartyr of Eastern Church and Empire.
 Heylyn P The Historie of St George, Part 2, London, 1633
 Adamnan De Locis Sanctis tr. Wilkinson, J, in Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades, Warminster 1977
 Daoust J L’Abbaye Saint-Georges de Boscherville Paris (nd)
 Daoust J op cit
 Barber R The Knight and Chivalry, New York, 1974
 Volbach W F Der Hlg. Georg, Strassburg, 1917
 Volbach W F op cit
 Haussig J M A History of Byzantine Civilisation, London 1976
 Volbach W F op cit
 Rhodes A Art Treasures in Eastern Europe, New York 1972
 Backman E L St Georgs-amuletten, kungle.Verenshapssocieteten i Upsala, Dec 1955. Yearbook publ Uppsala 1956
 Raimann A Gotische Wandmalereien in Graubunden, Desertina Verlag Disentis, 1983