Saint George is often imagined as the dragon-slaying patron saint of England, a chivalrous medieval knight who rescues damsels in distress.
However Saint George is not purely an English national and religious symbol, but an international and even multicultural one. He is an important and celebrated saint in many other countries, regions and cities all over the world, including Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Italy (Venice and Genoa), Lithuania, Malta, Palestine, Portugal, Russia, and Spain (Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia).
To commemorate the saint's day on 23rd April, here's an art historical exploration to further examine the cultural roots of Saint George.
Who was Saint George?
Saint George (d.AD 303) was a Cappadocian Greek man born to Christian parents. Upon reaching adulthood, he travelled to Palestine to become a Roman soldier during the time of the emperor Diocletian (AD 245–313). He excelled in the army, rising to the rank of Tribune.
We know relatively little else about his life, apart from the fact that he was martyred for protesting against Rome's persecution of Christians, allegedly giving up his military post to do so. As an outsider with a foreign religion, George was discriminated against by Roman authorities, who were becoming wary of Christianity's growing power. He was eventually arrested, imprisoned and tortured, but refused to make a sacrifice in honour of the pagan gods or renounce his religion. In the end, he was killed by beheading at Lydda, Palestine (now Lod in modern-day Israel) on 23rd April AD 303.
Saint George was canonised by Pope Gelasius I in AD 494.
In this Byzantine-influenced fifteenth-century depiction, the small figure behind the saint represents a Christian slave rescued by George.
Why did Saint George become a symbol of Englishness?
One thousand years after the saint's death, Edward III (1312–1377) declared Saint George to be the patron saint of England. Edward had founded the Order of the Garter in 1348, which is regarded as the most prestigious British order of chivalry. Before him, Richard I had placed himself and his army under the protection of Saint George during the Third Crusade in the twelfth century, adopting the emblem of Saint George, a red cross on a white background, which was worn as a uniform and later used on the English flag.
The story of Saint George was known in Europe as early as the seventh century, but it wasn't until the publication of The Golden Legend (1483) when the story became popularised in England. Originally written by the Archbishop of Genoa, Jacobus de Varagine, the book was later printed in English by Wiliam Caxton.
The book mythologised the narrative and image of Saint George as a heroic knight, and thereafter artistic depictions of Saint George slaying a dragon became a tradition. From the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries onwards, Saint George was deemed to be the protector of the English.
'Then said Saint George: Fair daughter, doubt ye nothing hereof for I shall help thee in the name of Jesus Christ. She said: For God's sake, good knight, go your way, and abide not with me, for ye may not deliver me. Thus as they spake together the dragon appeared and came running to them, and S. George was upon his horse, and drew out his sword and garnished him with the sign of the cross, and rode hardily against the dragon which came towards him, and smote him with his spear and hurt him sore and threw him to the ground. And after said to the maid: Deliver to me your girdle, and bind it about the neck of the dragon and be not afeard. When she had done so the dragon followed her as it had been a meek beast and debonair.' – The Golden Legend
From the Renaissance to the Reformation
Following the popularity of The Golden Legend, Saint George was often made the subject of miracle plays, which were adapted from pagan sources.
Saint George is a prime figure in the Elizabethan writer Edmund Spenser's epic poem The Fairie Queen (first published in 1590). The character of the Redcrosse Knight bears the emblem of the red cross and slays a dragon. Spenser claimed the purpose of the book was to 'fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline.' Saint George – among other knights – was used to illustrate such values.
Saint George's popularity in England was so prevalent that even when the English Reformation banned the celebration of saints' days, the nation was still allowed to observe and commemorate Saint George's Day.
The archetype of English masculinity
Arguably, Saint George has not only became a religious or patriotic symbol but also propagated a powerful metaphor for masculinity. His image embodies all of the traits and virtues traditionally attached to the male sex.
In 1889, French artist Gustave Moreau (1826–1898) created this painting of Saint George, showing a princess in the background with her hands folded in prayer.
The image immortalises Saint George as a stoic, fearless hero who saves fair maidens (swoon).
Today, the flag of Saint George has many connotations – cultural, religious and political. The image of Saint George's flag has also become associated with (largely white) English nationalism. However, from the beginning, Saint George has been a symbol for multiculturalism – an internationally identifiable saint whose story of persecution for his creed has endured for centuries.
Lydia Figes, Content Creator at Art UK