In popular history, the story of the Crusades started with Pope Urban II’s famous proclamation of the First Crusade at Clermont-Ferrand in 1095. In real history, however, as Sir Steven Runciman1 points out, the story of the Crusades to liberate the Holy Places of Jerusalem started nearly five hundred years earlier, when in 629 the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius liberated Jerusalem from Persian occupation, and for a time re-opened the path of pilgrims from both east and west to the Holy Places. And at the western end of the Mediterranean, the eleventh century had already seen fierce and bloody battles for the liberation of Arab Spain, and of its famous pilgrim route to the holy shrine of Santiago de Compostella.

The major significance of pilgrimage to the Holy Places of Christendom is in fact the key to an understanding of the whole history of the Crusades and of the Crusaders. Such pilgrimages were rare in the earliest days of Christendom, but Constantine’s espousal of Christianity, and the discovery of the True Cross in Jerusalem in 327, by his mother St. Helena, led to a dramatic increase in the practice. Towards the end of the 4th century St. Jerome, one of the early Fathers of the Christian Church, settled in Palestine, and wealthy women who had sat at his feet in Italy flocked to visit him and to see the Holy Places. By the beginning of the 5th century, there were some two hundred hospices and monasteries in the Jerusalem area, to receive and care for the pilgrims. A lucrative trade in holy relics soon built up, and a flourishing traffic developed both in goods and in pilgrim passages, along the sea routes from the West to the eastern Mediterranean coast.

At the beginning of the 7th century this happy scene of Christian piety and devotion was rudely interrupted. For some years the Byzantine Empire had been torn by savage strife between Orthodox and heretical Christians, notably the Nestorians and the Jacobite Monophysites, with the Jews participating actively on the sidelines. Weakened by this internecine warfare, the Empire was perceived by the Persian King, Chosroes II, to be ripe for dismemberment. The Persians attacked in 610, and on April 15, 614, they besieged Jerusalem. On May 5, with the help of Jews within the city, they broke the defences, and appalling scenes of destruction and slaughter followed. Sixty thousand Christians were massacred, some by the Persian invaders, but most of them by the Jews. Thirty five thousand more were sold into slavery. The Holy Cross and other sacred relics were seized and sent eastwards as a gift to the Nestorian Queen of Persia. When the report of these events reached the outside world, there was shock and revulsion, and the part played by the Jews was never forgotten by western Christians.

Eight years passed before Heraclius was able to mount an offensive against the invaders. Before setting out he dedicated himself and his army to God in a Holy War to recover the relics and Holy Places of Christendom. His Crusade succeeded beyond all expectations, when in 627 he defeated Chosroes at Nineveh. In 628 he received back the Holy Cross, and carried it in solemn ceremony to be deposited again in Jerusalem, the Holy City. On learning from a Jewish host in the city the full story of the massacres of May 5, 615, he ordered the compulsory baptism of all Jews within the Empire. So, stemming from the horrors of the Persian sack of the Holy City, there arose the mutual hatred and violence between Christians and Jews which disfigured so much of the real achievement of later Crusades.

Before many years had passed, the Middle East was shaken by another momentous series of events, which were destined to have dire consequences not only for the Holy Places at the heart of Christendom in Palestine, but also for other places of pilgrimage at the far western end of Europe. In the year 622 Mohammed fled from Mecca to Medina in the first year of the Hegira, and soon afterwards he dictated the Koran to his followers. By the time he died, ten years later, he was Ruler of Arabia, and by 635 his successors had overrun Palestine and Syria. As the defeated Byzantine Emperor Heraclius finally left Antioch to take ship to Constantinople, he cried “Farewell, a long farewell to Syria”.

Byzantine Egypt fell to the Moslem Arabs in 645, and by the year 700 they had conquered the whole of Byzantine Africa. By 711 they had taken most of the Iberian peninsula, so that the Islamic crescent had spread out to engulf the whole of the southern shore of the Mediterranean, with its twin horns stretching up to the mountains of Anatolia in the east, and to the Pyrenees in the west. After this time pilgrimages to Palestine were much more perilous and less frequent. There were a few venturesome souls in the 7th century, like the Frankish Bishop Arculf who in 670 made a complete tour of the Egypt, Syria and Palestine, including a visit to the Shrine of St. George at Lydda. Their numbers somewhat increased during the 8th century, especially after Charlemagne established good relations with Caliph Harun al Rashid, and managed to establish new hostels in the Holy Land, for both men and women. But when Bernard the Wise, from Brittany, visited Palestine in 870, he found these hostels empty and beginning to decline.

Another great age of pilgrimage to Palestine began however in the 10th century, when the Byzantine fleet regained control of the Mediterranean, during a period when fairly tolerant Moslem regimes held control in Palestine. Much of this pilgrimage activity was organised by the Cluniacs, who established recognised routes to the Holy Land in the east, and to the shrine of Santiage da Compostella in the west. Prominent among the pilgrims travelling these routes were the ex-Viking Normans. They had a special veneration for St. Michael, and great numbers of them travelled to his shrine at Monte san Angelo in southern Italy, and thence onward to Palestine.

Their Viking relations in Scandinavia were also avid pilgrims, having long been familiar with the wonders of Constantinople (Miklegard to them), through their other cousins, the Varangians of Kievian Russia. The apostle to Iceland, Thorwald Kodransson Vidtforli, went to Jerusalem in 990, and Harald Hardrada went there in 1034. Swein Godwinsson died in Anatolia when trying to reach the Holy Places on a mission of atonement for a murder he had committed, and Lagman Gudrodsson, Danish King of Man, went on a similar mission of expiation. The route taken by many of these Scandinavian pilgrims points up the significance of the Vikings in the political and religious developments of Christian Europe, for they often made a round tour, travelling by sea through the Straits of Gibraltar, and returning overland through the Russian territory of their Varangian cousins.

In the first half of the 11th century safe land routes were established through Hungary and Dalmatia to Constantinople, and chains of hostels were established to aid the long overland journeys of the pilgrims. Many of the Holy relics were at this time housed in Constantinople, which thus became an important half-way house for pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem. Pilgrimage to these eastern shrines was for a time as safe as it had been in pre-Moslem Byzantium, and probably somewhat easier. Within just a few decades however this new found equilibrium was again upset, when the revived prosperity of Byzantium was once more undermined by invasions; from Seljuk Turkish armies in the east, and from the restless ex-Viking Normans in the west.

The Turks overran Armenia, and thence penetrated westward towards Syria. In 1071 the Byzantine Emperor Romanus mounted an offensive to retake Armenia, but after being betrayed by Franks and Normans of his own Varangian Guard he suffered a decisive defeat at Mantzikert on the Euphrates. Within a short time the Seljuk Turks were masters of Palestine and Syria, and of the greater part of Anatolia, having defeated not only the Byzantines, but also the Egyptian Arabs. The next twenty-years saw a succession of internecine struggles between different Turkish factions, which led to widespread chaos over the whole area. Remarkably, some pilgrims still managed to reach the Holy Places, after suffering great hardships in their travels, especially through the wilds of Anatolia, which could only be crossed with an armed escort. On returning from such ventures they had frightening stories to tell, and in the western world there was a growing conviction that some action must be taken to open again the path of the pilgrims to the Holy Places.

Meanwhile, at the other end of Western Europe, the centuries long dominance of the Arabs in Spain was coming under challenge from the Christian princes of France and Normandy, urged on by religious Orders such as the Cluniacs, and also by successive Popes. In 1063 Pope Alexander I I promised an indulgence for all who fought for the Cross in Spain. Norman and French Knights streamed over the Pyrenees to help the beleagered Spanish Kings. In 1073 Pope Gregory VII called on all Christian princes to assist, and declared that Christian knights could take possession of any lands they might conquer from the infidel. Pope Urban II continued these urgings, even for a time telling prospective pilgrims to Palestine that they could better spend their money on the Holy War in Spain.

The capture of Huesca from the Moors brought this particular campaign to a close, but by then the concept of the Holy War to retrieve the lost lands of Christendom had become firmly established throughout Europe. The idea of combining devout Christian duty with the opportunity of acquiring land in the warm climate of the Mediterranean was very appealing to young knights forced to seek their fortunes beyond the confines of family domains. It was especially appealing to the Normans who were only a few generations removed from their restless Viking forebears. The scene was thus well prepared for the proclamation of the first great Crusade to free the Holy Places of the Middle East from the Turkish invader.

Urban II launched his famous appeal to a vast multitude assembled in the open air outside the great cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand, but it was in fact addressed to all the people of Christian Europe. Central to his message were the plight of the Eastern Christians in Byzantium, and the sufferings of pilgrims trying to reach the Holy Land. He called on rich and poor alike to go to their succour. He laid down rules that all should observe: the bishops would grant remission from temporal penalties for the worldly sins of all who embarked on the holy war: their worldly possessions would be put in the trust of the Church during their absence, to be preserved intact for their return: each member of the Crusade should wear a Cross of red material sewn to the shoulder of his surcoat, and if he turned back he would suffer excommunication: all should be ready to leave on the Feast of the Assumption in the following year, 1096. The response to this appeal was beyond all expectation.

Virtually within the agreed time four great armies were assembled for departure, each comprising around 10,000 men: an army of southern French led by Raymond of Toulouse: an army of Walloons and Lotharingians led by Geoffrey of Boulogne, Duke of Lorraine, with his brothers Eustace and Baldwin of Boulogne: an army of Normans and northern French led by Robert Count of Normandy, his brother-in-law Stephen of Blois, and his cousin Robert of Flanders: and an army of Normans from southern Italy led by Bohemond, Duke of Taranto. There were two distinct elements among these feudal lords and knights. Some, like Raymond and Geoffrey and Robert of Normandy were lords of substantial dukedoms, with relatively little incentive for conquest and occupation of overseas territories. Others, like Baldwin of Boulogne and Bohemond of Taranto, were younger sons with little or no stake in their homelands. The actions of the former were generally motivated by high ideals, whereas those of the latter were largely, though not wholly, motivated by personal ambition and greed.

Bohemond of Taranto was a good example of the latter. At first he was slow to respond to Urban’s appeal, but later realising that this might be his great opportunity to break out of the confines of his small share of the Duchy of Apulia, he declared that he would take the Cross, and summoned those around to join him. Before embarking for the Holy Land from Bari in Apulia, he took off his rich scarlet cloak in front of his assembled army, and tore it into strips to make crosses for his captains. [1] Many from the ranks of his powerful uncle, Roger of Sicily, deserted their master to join him, leaving Roger to complain that the Crusade had robbed him of his army.

The journeys and exploits of these four great armies as they travelled and fought their way through eastern Europe to Byzantium, and thence to the sea coast of Syria, where they occupied the city of Antioch, have been well described by such historians as Runciman, and are too complicated even to summarise here. Soon after their occupation of this key city the Turks, who had till now suffered a succession of defeats, regrouped outside the city, and threatened to annihilate the assembled Crusader armies. The beleaguered Christians had been cheered by an earlier arrival of a Genoese squadron of ships, sent in belated response to Pope Urban’s appeal. But now food stocks were running out again, and after an abortive attempt to parley with the Turkish leader, Kerbogha, it became clear that apart from unconditional surrender, they had no alternative but to join battle with the enemy.

The Seige of Antioch
The Siege of Antioch 14th century manuscript

On Monday, 28th of June 1098, the Crusading armies under the command of Bohemond were drawn up for battle. The conflict was hard fought, and time and again the outcome was in the balance; but at a critical moment, the Christians were spurred on by an extraordinary vision, on the mountains above, of a host of knights carrying white banners. The Turkish army broke up in panic, and were slain in vast numbers by the pursuing Crusaders, whose victory was complete. This crucial episode of the First Crusade was recorded in detail by every one of the many contemporary chroniclers of the campaign. According to Peter of Tudebod’s ‘Historia Itineris Hierosolymitani’, cited by Wallace Budge[2], the Turks had surrounded the Crusaders, and had wounded many with their spears and arrows.

Then suddenly a vast army emerged from the mountains around them, and the troops composing it were mounted on white horses, and all the standards they carried were white. The generals of the host from the mountains were St. George, St. Theodore and St. Demetrius

Robert le Moine’s ‘Historia Hierosolymitani’ recorded a very similar story, though in his account the standard bearers were St. George, St. Maurice and St. Demetrius. With some variations of detail this story was repeated as authentic in every subsequent historical account throughout the middle ages. William of Malmesbury, writing not long after the event, in 1125, recorded it thus in De Gestis Regum Anglorum[3].

Persuadebantque sibi videre se antiquos martyres, qui olim milites fuissent, quique mortis pretio parassent praemia vitae, Georgium dico e t Demetrium, vexillis levatis a partibus montanis occurrere, jacula in hostes in se auxiliam vibrantes

“= And they were convinced that they saw the soldier martyrs of old, George and Demetrius, to whom the price of death furnished the gift of life, advancing upon the enemy with flags held high, throwing the enemy host into confusion by their reinforcing aid 

A century or so later, Matthew Paris, chronicler monk of St. Albans Abbey, wrote as follows in Hist. Aug. ad 1098[4]

“Cum utrinque victoria fluctuaret incerta, esse ab ipsis montibus visus est exercitus descendere invincibilis, cuius bellatores equis albis insidentes, vexilla in manibus Candida praeferebant. Cognoverunt ergo Princeps ex inspectione vexillorum, Sanctum Georgium, S.Demetrium, et S.Mercurium sua signa sequentes procedere 

As victory swung uncertainly from one side to the other, an invincible army was seen coming down from the mountains, its warriors seated upon
white horses and carrying dazzling white flags before them. Then from the emblems on the flags they knew that the army was advancing behind St .George, St. Demetrius and St. Mercurius 

Despite the uncertainty about the identity of their third companion, the martyrs St. George and St. Demetrius were common to all the accounts, and the victorious Crusaders seem to have had no doubts as to the reality of their intervention at this critical battle outside Antioch. When later in the year they finally advanced on Jerusalem, they reached the town of Ramleh, a mile away from Lydda, the famous shrine of St. George. Ramleh was still an administrative centre of the Egyptian Moslems, who fled to the south east when the alarm was raised, having first as an act of defiance destroyed the great Church of St. George at Lydda. The advancing Crusaders at once vowed to rebuild the shrine of St. George, and to establish a new bishopric of Ramleh and Lydda in his honour. A Norman priest, Robert of Rouen, was appointed to the see.

Soon thereafter the army reached the outskirts of Jerusalem and encamped before the Holy City itself. The siege began on 7th June 1099, and was finally successful on the 14th July, when the Crusaders managed to scale the walls and capture the city. They were again apparently helped by St. George, who again wore white armour, this time charged with a red cross; he was also again accompanied by St. Maurice and a host of mounted soldiers, 30,000 strong in one account, 100,000 strong in another.[5]

The capture of the city was followed by ferocious massacres of its Moslem and Jewish inhabitants, reminiscent of the massacres of Christians by Persians and Jews 500 years earlier, when the city was sacked by Chosroes. It is tragic that this story of saintly intervention should have been so sadly tarnished by such barbarous brutality. For some of the participants, the memory of similar brutalities five hundred years before may have appeared to justify these appalling atrocities; but when the news arrived back home it shocked and sickened people in Christian Europe, and served only to deepen the historic hatreds between Jews and Christians and Moslems.

Despite the accompaniment of such sombre and tragic events, the deliverance of the Holy Places in Jerusalem was seen as the crowning achievement of the First Crusade; and the success of the Crusaders in the earlier battle outside Antioch was seen as having been the key to the success of the whole campaign which led to that deliverance, since defeat at that crucial point would have been irreversible. It is therefore understandable that the stories of the miraculous intervention of St. George and his companions, at both of these crucial events, spread like wildfire around Western Europe, when the news of the exploits of the Crusaders reached the homelands of the victorious warriors.

It gave a tremendous impetus to the cult of the Saint throughout the whole of Western Christendom, which manifested itself in terms of dedications of churches, monasteries, religious and lay communities and societies, cities, city states and nations, all devoted to the glory of his name. It also transformed the iconography of the Saint in western Christendom. Although he generally retained a mien of youthful serenity, he was no longer the gentle martyr in formal eastern dress, holding a cross or a palm, as portrayed in early eastern icons. Henceforth he was portrayed in the west as a knight in shining armour, sometimes on foot, but more often mounted on a white horse with sword or lance in his hand, bearing on his shield or his breast or even on his harness, the red cross of the Crusaders.

Despite quite intensive research, like that of Grosso,[6] there is no serious body of evidence to suggest that the red cross was ever a symbol of the Saint before the First Crusade; nor can one give serious credence to vague undocumented suggestions that at some unspecified time the red cross was brought down to the Saint from heaven by a host of angels. There is indeed little doubt that the red cross of St. George is in fact the red cross which Pope Urban proclaimed to be worn by all who dedicated themselves to liberate the Holy Places. It came to be the symbol for St. George simply because it was he who miraculously preserved the Crusaders in their hour of need outside Antioch, and at the final deliverance of the Holy City of Jerusalem. These events had transformed the Great Martyr of eastern Christendom into the Great Crusader of western Christendom.

This same red cross was also worn on the masts of the English and Genoese ships, whose crews played a major part in the crusading endeavour, and who played such a vital role both at Antioch and in the final months before the storming of Jerusalem. As will be seen in later chapters, it soon became the recognised flag for the ships of these two great maritime powers, a practice which eventually led to the adoption of
 St. George as patron saint of both England and Genoa, a great City-state which in the Middle Ages was usually known as the ‘Republic of St. George’.
Some of the medieval portrayals of the Saint which have survived in western churches recall the actual episodes of the first crusade, and depict realistical details of the miraculous interventions. Not unnaturally most of these are to be found in the regions from which the armies of the Crusaders set out, mainly in Normandy, France and Italy. Just a few of them are to be found in England, and as will be described in detail in a later chapter, these seem to have been of critical importance for the development of the cult of St. George as patron saint of this country.

Chapt 4 Ponce sur  Loir bataille
Battle scene from church of Ponce-sur-le-Loire, France

An impressive example of such mural paintings in France can be seen in a 12th century wall painting high up on the north wall of the nave of the church of Ponce-sur-le-Loir, in the Sarthe Department, close to Normandy. There are three panels separated by windows. In the central panel can be seen four Turkish knights riding black horses, identifiable by their round shields, under attack from two haloed knights in white armour, riding white horses and carrying ‘heater’ shaped shields. The foremost Turk has been unseated by a blow from one of the lances, and the others have already started to turn tail: a body already cut in two and gruesomely bleeding lies beneath the Turkish horses.

Deschamps,[7] writing in 1950, noted that when an earlier observer (Laffillee) had seen the paintings fifty years before, there were three white clad knights attacking the Turks. Although there were only two by 1950, the lance of the third could still be seen. These three figures were presumably the three saints identified on the battle-field as Sts. George, Demetrius and Maurice. The right panel of the mural showed two troops of Turkish and Crusader knights with their lances raised in confrontation. The left panel was said to be badly damaged, but apparently it originally showed the defeated Turks fleeing the field of battle.

These same knights dressed in white are found in murals in a chapel of the church of Saint-Chef (Isere), which is dedicated to three archangels and to St. George. The paintings here are from the end of the 12th century. On the vault of the chapel Christ is enthroned in majesty, surrounded by a choir of 
angels. On the walls one sees the Holy City of Jerusalem, and below is the throng of the elect; prophets, evangelists, apostles, doctors, confessors, and martyrs, among whom are two warriors in white, helmeted and wearing chain mail.

Chapt 4 Cressec 1
12th century fresco from the church of Saint Jacques de Gueret

They are seen again in murals in the Cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand, the place where Urban first preached his call for the First Crusade. Not surprisingly this church has the most extensive range of wall paintings of St. George to be found in the whole of France. Among these is a scene which originally showed the appearance of St. George at the siege of Jerusalem. When Deschamps described this mural in 1950, the actual figure of St. George had disappeared, but a watercolour reproduced in the Bulletin archeoloaicrue of 1901 preserves an excellent record of it. In this reproduction there are two groups of knights. To the left are five Turks dressed in red coats, fleeing the scene of battle: four of them are armed with round shields, while the fifth is an archer in the act of letting fly an arrow at his pursuers. St. George leads the group of Crusaders on the right, who are chasing the fleeing Turks. The red cross adorns his coat of arms, his shield, the banner on his lance, and the harness of his horse.

Clermont Ferrand crusader
Crusader knight from Clermont-Ferrand cathedral

Others of the French medieval murals described by Deschamps carry more conventional motifs of St. George, and some seem to refer to episodes from later Crusades. A 12th century painting in the church of Saint-Jacques-des-Guerets (Loir-et-Cher) shows St. George standing, helmeted and wearing chain mail, with a long shield pointed at base hanging from his neck. His right hand holds a lance which he is plunging into the gullet of a winged dragon trampled beneath his feet.

Some years earlier there had been another wall painting, with a file of five knights dressed in military costume of the time of St. Louis. Above the head of the first knight could be read the name St. Georgius. His helm and his banner were adorned with red crosses, while his enormous shield carried a red cross with four martlets in its four quarters. Abbe Haugou (cited by Deschamps) studied this painting in 1890, and speculated that this scene alluded to the departure of Pierre I of Vendome with Saint Louis to the 1248 Crusade.

Deschamps also discusses some wall paintings in the ancient 12th century chapel of the Templars at Cressac, near to Blanzac (Charente), which is still called today the ‘Temple of Cressac’. In the 19th century this was used as a barn, and later as a protestant church: it is now classed as an historic monument. The paintings on the walls of this building contain an extraordinary mixture of diverse elements of the iconography of St. George. Many scenes of life on the Crusader campaigns are depicted, too many to describe here, but those on the west wall are of particular iconographical interest to this study of the cult and iconography of the Saint.

Temple of Cressac
12th century fresco, Templar’s Chapel at Cessac, France

To the left of an embrasure on this wall there is a conventional depiction of St. George standing over a dragon with raised sword, accompanied by a female figure. To the right of the embrasure there stands another female figure, wearing a crown, and facing the mounted figure of the Emperor Constantine; beneath the feet of the horse and the rider there lies a diminutive Diocletian. Here we have the theme last encountered in this book in the Ethiopian icon, where the mounted figure of Constantine was seen below the mounted figure of St. George. Similar scenes are to be found carved on the facades of Romanesque churches in the districts of Saintonge and Poitou in western France, and Emile Male interprets the crowned female figure in these as the Church triumphant greeting Constantine, as the first Christian Emperor.

Window embrasure Temple of Cressac
Window embrasure showing St George slaying the dragon (left) and a boat scene (right), Templar’s Chapel, Cress, Franc

On the wall within the embrasure is a third element of great iconographical interest. This is a small boat with a crew of two men, perched on the waves of a stormy sea. Already in the 7th century a prayer by the Cypriot Bishop Arkadius had invoked St. George as ‘Helmsman of Seafarers’,[8] and the cult of the Saint as patron and protector of sailors was undoubtedly enhanced by the naval exploits of the English and Genoese sailors who went out in small boats to the Syrian coast to assist the crusading armies. Chapters 5 and 7 present other examples of this theme, in the context of the cult of the Saint in the Italian City-states and in the Western Empire.

Finally, a refectory painting in the priory of Courtoze (Loir et Cher) shows St. George dressed in mail armour, wearing a typically Norman helmet with protective nasal strip, striking a wolf with his sword. So it seems that the Franco/Norman Crusaders brought back the story of St. George’s role as ‘Lord of the Wolves’, as well as the stories of his intervention at Antioch and Jerusalem, when they returned to their western homes.

These stories were also brought back by the Normans who had gone crusading with Bohemond of Taranto, when they returned to their homes in Southern Italy, which had been wrested from the Byzantines by Bohemond’s father Robert Guiscard, in the middle of the 11th century. After the victories at Antioch and Jerusalem, Bohemond himself stayed in the Middle East for some years to establish his Principality of Antioch. Later he returned to Apulia, after a series of defeats and imprisonments by the Saracens. He died there in the year 1111, and his tomb, inscribed simply with his name, ‘BOHEMOND’, lies in a small chapel adjoining the great Norman Cathedral of Canosa di Puig.

Santa Maria di Cerrate
Santa Maria di Cerrate, Leccce, Italy

In his native Apulia, and also in Campania and Sicily, the cult of the Saint grew vigorously, and many portrayals of
 St. George still remain in churches and cathedrals of this 
area. Among them are frescoes in the churches of Santa Maria Maggiore at Montesan Angelo, San Sepulcro in Brindisi, and
 Santa Maria di Cerrate near Lecce. One 13th century painting in this Lecce church is particularly interesting, in that the 
shield carried by the Saint is of the long oval shape commonly seen in 11th century paintings, and in weavings such as the Bayeux Tapestry. This fresco was found beneath a later, 15th century painting (now removed to the adjacent church museum), which depicts both St. George and St. Maurice, who were companions in the interventions of the saintly knights on white horses, at the battles for Antioch and Jerusalem in 1098-99.


Even more impressive evidence of the cult of St. George in Norman Italy is to be found in panels on bronze doors for three great Norman cathedrals, cast by Barisano of Trani between 1175 and 1186. One is on the door of the beautiful ‘Cathedral by the Sea’ at Trani, a small coastal city close to the east coast port of Bari, where Bohemond embarked on his voyage to the First Crusade: another is on the magnificent cathedral of Monreale, Sicily, and a third on the cathedral at Ravello, close to Salerno on the west coast of the Italian peninsula. Most of the scenes in the panels of these superb doors depict biblical characters. Only three of them depict post-biblical saints, and these are St. George, St. Maurice, and St. Christopher.

Monrealse CAthedral door detail
A section of the bronze doors of the Cathedral of Monreale, Sicily

Although the doors themselves are not of identical size, and do not comprise the same number of panels, it is evident that the panels common to them were cast from the same moulds. All three doors contain the panels with St. George and
 St. Maurice in central positions, and with their names clearly inscribed. They are outstanding works of art, clearly exhibiting Byzantine inflence, with beautiful free flowing lines describing both the Saint and his steed. Behind the Saint the disc of the Sun God of the Georgians can be seen. The dragon is a very small, serpent-like creature, clearly a symbol of evil rather than the fierce ravening monster of later centuries. It closely resembles, and was possibly inspired by, a dragon on coins issued 60 years earlier by Roger of Sicily in Antioch.

Detail of St George and the dragon on the bronze doors of the Cathedral of Monreale, Sicitly

It is significant that once again, St. Maurice is
 St. George’s companion, as in the 15th century fresco at Lecce in Apulia, and in the frescoes in the churches of Ponce-sur-le- Loir in Normandy and Saint-Chef in the Isere Department of France. Thus traditions born from the miraculous interventions of these companion saints in the Holy Land were maintained unbroken through the centuries.

Stories of the intervention of St. George were reported time and again in the history of battles against the Moslem invaders of Christendom, and some of these even seem to ante-date the Antioch appearance. For example, Deschamps cites a story of a vision of one of the monks of Montiers Saint Jean, who had joined in the fighting against invading Saracens. During the battle he had a vision of men dressed in white, who told him that they had been transported from the realm of the blessed, having earlier lost their lives in combat with the Saracens. Deschamps adds that in Sicily, in the course of a battle between Arabs and Norman knights, St. George appeared clothed in shining armour, carrying a white standard charged with a red cross. As has already been described in Chapter 3, St. George mounted on a white horse also delivered beleaguered Russian Christians from the pagan Swedish hordes. In Spain also, as will be described in Chapter 6, there were many stories of such intervention during the centuries of campaigns against the Moslem infidels.

The homecoming Crusaders’ enthusiasm for St. George was of course fully shared by those who stayed in the Holy Land to create the new Kingdoms of Outremer. These new Christian Kingdoms, were born in the very land of St. George, and were from the outset dedicated to his patronage. The land-hungry younger sons among the crusading knights had started to carve up the occupied territories of Syria and Palestine into feudal kingdoms well before the conquest of Jerusalem. Baldwin of Boulogne founded the Kingdom of Edessa in northern Syria early on in the campaign, and after the capture of Antioch Bohemond took control of the city, and founded the Principality of Antioch. After the capture of Jerusalem, the noble knight Geoffrey of Boulogne unwillingly accepted responsibility for the city, not as a King, but as ‘advocatus Sancti Sepulchri’. He died not long after, and in his will bequeathed the city to the Patriarch; but his more ambitious younger brother Baldwin soon arrived from Edessa, and assumed the title of King of Jerusalem to great acclamation. The Kingdom of Edessa was left in charge of another younger son, his cousin Baldwin of Bourg.
 During Bohemond’s captivity in the hands of the Saracens, and after he returned home to Apulia, the Principality of Antioch was administered by a succession of de Hauteville relatives, pending the time when his young son Bohemond II could return to claim his patrimony. One of these was his great-nephew Roger of Sicily, during whose regency (1112-1119) coins were issued bearing the image of St. George with a small serpent-like dragon, remarkably like the one in the St. George and Dragon panels on the bronze doors which, 60 years later, Barisano of Trani designed and cast for churches in Norman Italy.   The coin shows the haloed Saint, labelled O A Geor (O Agios Georgios), spearing a small serpent like dragon, while the reverse bears the inscription ‘Rotser Prink(i)pos Antiok’.


Technically the territories of Outremer should have been held as vassal kingdoms under the authority of the Byzantine Emperor, Alexius, to whom most of the Crusader leaders had sworn allegiance when passing through Constantinople. Baldwin of Boulogne however had slipped through Byzantine territory without wearing such allegiance, so he at least had a clear conscience when establishing his successive kingdoms as Latin territories. And despite the allegiance sworn by Bohemond to Alexius, he and his successors took little notice of the authority of anyone but themselves. So both politically and ecclesiastically the kingdoms of Outremer were Latin from the outset. Culturally they were however a fascinating mixture of East and West, and nowhere is this more evident than in their religious iconography.

Throughout the next two centuries a steady stream of artisans and artists travelled from the West to Outremer, which later included the Kingdoms of Tripoli and Acre, which emerged in the shifting pattern of the middle-east. Some of these travellers were visitors, others immigrants. Great castles and churches were built, and were appropriately decorated with secular and religious works of art. In addition, devout members of these new societies continued the traditional practice of supporting the great religious communities of the middle east, including the Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai, through gifts of icons and religious vessels and vestments. The consequent fusion of western and eastern traditions produced a distinctive genre of icons known today as ‘Crusader Icons’.

Weitzmann9 contributed a unique study of Crusader icons to ‘The Icon’,[9] a book published in 1982 by Alfred A Knopf. Some of these icons are to be found scattered around the world in museums, but most of those which have survived the centuries are to be found the great icon-treasure of the Monastery of St. Catherine, in Sinai, which also houses the earliest extant icon of St. George from the 6th century. These Sinai Crusader Icons, which provide the greater part of
our heritage of this fascinating genre of religious art, might still be unknown to the outside world, but for the expeditions to St. Catherine’s, organised in 1958-1965 by the Universities of Princeton, Michigan and Alexandria, in which Weitzmann played a leading role.

The story of the opening up to the world of this fantastic treasure of the Sinai icons is one of the great episodes of the exploration of cultural history in modern times. For nearly 1500 years, through a most serendipitous combination of geographic and historic factors, St. Catherine’s remained a safe repository for masterpieces of religious art arising from the extraordinary diversity of iconographical development within the Middle East. The monastery was originally linked with the ateliers of Constantinople through its Byzantine origin, and later came under the jurisdiction of Jerusalem when direct contact with the capital of the Empire was broken. It was protected from the destruction of the Byzantine iconoclasts by tolerant Moslem rulers, and became closely linked with the art and culture of Georgia, Syria and Outremer through colonies of Georgian, Syrian and Latin monks within its fortress walls.

For many centuries it also maintained close relations with the culture of Cyprus, and still owns estates on that island. After the fall of Constantinople it accepted the patronage of Moldavian and Wallachian communities who salvaged some of the treasures of Byzantium, and later it accepted the patronage of Russia. Still later, strong links were forged with the religious art of post-Byzantine Cretan ateliers. Through gifts from its patrons in these territories, and through the quite extraordinary output of its resident monks, there was built up the fantastic store of icons and religious manuscripts that is today stored at St. Catherine’s.

Weitzmann noted that among the 2044 icons recorded at St. Catherine’s in his personal check list, more than one hundred and twenty were Crusader Icons produced during the two centuries of Outremer, either in the Holy Land, or in the monastery. The greater part of these were in his opinion produced in the monastery itself, because many of them fit accurately the dimensions of the iconstasis beams at St. Catherine’s; and others are recognisably the work of one artist and his assistants. These were presumably the work of the Latin monks and lay helpers who had their own chapel in the monastery, appropriately called ‘The Chapel of the Franks’

Chapt 4 Plate 5
Sts George, Theodore and Demetrius. Icon in St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

There are many icons of St. George among them, and two are especially outstanding. The first of these is thought by Weitzmann to be one of a group painted at Sinai, probably the work of a Greek artist from Apulia in southern Italy. It shows frontal standing figures of Sts. George, Theodore and Demetrius, those three familiar comrades-in-arms. The saints wear chain mail between the long court tunic and the chlamys, thus transforming Byzantine saints in ceremonial court dress into Crusader knights. Despite the western elements in this icon, the stiff poses of the figures, and the aloofness of facial expressions, catch well the Byzantine spirit. All three saints carry small crosses in the Byzantine manner, but 
St. George also carries a sword and a shield, implying that he was especially singled out as the warrior Crusader-Saint. This icon is an splendid example of the fusion of eastern and western elements that typifies this genre of Crusader Icons.

St George and St Theodore Sinai 2
St George and St Theodore, St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

The other of these two icons is attributed by Weitzmann to a French artist working in the Holy Land. It shows a small donor figure in the foreground, with a Greek inscription “Pray for the servant of God, George of Paris”. Once again we see two of the comrades-in-arms, Sts George and Theodore, this time on horseback, the steed of St. George being white in accord with tradition. This icon also is very much in the Byzantine spirit, though the somewhat soulful expression of St. Theodore conveys the greater emotionalism of western art. Of special iconographical interest is the fact that the lances of both St. George and St. Theodore carry banners with red crosses. Thus it is clear that at this time in the middle east, the red cross was still the symbol of Crusader knights and saints in general, and was not exclusively the symbol for St. George.

This conclusion is pointed up in another Crusader Icon at St. Catherine’s, this time portraying yet another Byzantine soldier saint, St. Sergius . This icon also is attributed to an Italian artist of the 13th century, possibly from Apulia, who was working at Sinai. Both the dress and the posture of the kneeling donor, a woman, are clearly Western in style. The most striking feature of the icon is the enormous pennant carried on the lance, displaying a red cross on a white background. In addition, both the inside of the shield carried by the saint, and his saddle, display the red cross. Once again there can be no doubt that this was still regarded as the symbol for all Crusader knights and saints, the red cross which in 1095 Pope Urban decreed to be worn on the shoulder of each Crusader.

St Sergius icon Chapt 4 pl 7
St Sergius icon St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai
George British Museum001red
13th century icon of St George with the ‘coffee boy’. 13th century. British Museum, London 

There are Crusader Icons outside St. Catherine’s Monastery, and the British Museum recently acquired one which was included in the 1987 Exhibition ‘From Byzantium to El Greco’, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. This displays the theme so much loved by Greek icon painters, and also recorded in Catalan legends, depicting the ‘coffee boy’ of Osbert Lancaster carrying a goblet and sitting on the crupper of St. George’s horse. It has been suggested that this was commissioned 
by a 13th century pilgrim to the Holy Land, and was painted by one of his compatriots living and working in Outremer. When compared with the Crusader Icons from St. Catherine’s, described above, it seems very Western in tone, an impression borne out by the nature of the Saint’s clothing, although the moulded gesso background is clearly in imitation of the metal revetments that were sometimes added to Byzantine icons, and which became even more popular in Russian icons. The name of the Saint is seen in red letters in Greek to the right of the halo.

The Crusades and the Crusaders clearly had an outstanding influence on both the cult and the iconography of St. George in Western Christendom, but it is arguable as to whether or not the reputation of our Saint has been enhanced by this association. 
To those who regard the Crusades as an indefensible aberration from Christian values, and who judge the Crusaders as unmitigated villains, the association can be seen only as a disaster. But there were many good, kindly men among those brave adventurers, and many of those who travelled to the other end of the civilised world, and endured great hardship, did so for the purest of motives.

This is a debate that perhaps can never be simply
 resolved. But it has to be said that it is often very difficult to reconcile the gentle martyr saint of the Diocletian persecution with the ‘Bringer of Victory’, the great soldier saint of the Crusaders.















[1] Runciman S             A History of the Crusades, Vol. 1, London 1951

[2] Budge E A W           George of Lydda, London 1930

[3] Stubbs (tr)              Des Gestis Regum Anglorum, Vol II, London 1889

[4] Budge E A W          op cit n 2

[5] Matske J R                Contributions to the Legend of St George etc¨, Pub Modern                                            Language Assoc. America, Baltimore, 17, 1902

[6] Gross O                     II San Giorgio dei Genovesi, Genoa, 1914

[7] Deschamps P           La Legende de Saint Georges et des Combats des Croises dans                                      les Peintures Murales du Moyen Age. Fondation Piot.                                                          Monuments et Memoires, 44, 1950

[8] Scott Fox D               St George: The Saint with three Faces, London, 1983

[9] Weitzmann K          The Icons of the Period of the Crusades, from ‘The Icon’, New                                       York, 1982