Saint George

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Saint George (c. 275/280April 23, 303) was a soldier of the Roman Empire and later became a Christian martyr.

Saint George
Born Lydda, Palestine
Died ca. AD 303, Nicomedia, Bithynia
Venerated in Christianity
Major shrine St. George's Church, Lod
Feast April 23
Attributes Lance, Dragon, Horseback Rider, Knighthood, St George's Cross
Patronage England, Georgia, Lithuania, Moscow, Lod, Army, Catalonia, Amersfoort, Netherlands; Aragon; agricultural workers; archers; armourers; Beirut, Lebanon; Boy Scouts; butchers; Canada; Cappadocia; Catalonia; cavalry; chivalry; Constantinople; Crusaders; England (by Pope Benedict XIV); equestrians; farmers; Ferrara Italy; field hands; field workers; Genoa, Italy; Georgia; Germany; Gozo; Greece; Haldern, Germany; Heide, Germany; herpes; horsemen; horses; husbandmen; Istanbul; knights; lepers; leprosy; Lithuania; Malta; Modica, Sicily; Moscow; Order of the Garter; Palestine; Palestinian Christians; plague; Portugal; Ptuj, Slovenia; riders; saddle makers; saddlers; sheep; shepherds; skin diseases; skin rashes; soldiers; syphilis; Teutonic Knights; Venice[1]

Traditional origin

The traditional account of his life is considered to have originated in the 4th century. According to it, George was born to a Christian family during the late 3rd century. His father was from Cappadocia and served as an officer of the army. His mother was from Lydda, Palestine. She returned to her native city as a widow along with her young son, where she provided him with a respectable education.

The youth, it would seem, followed his father's example in joining the army soon after his coming of age. He proved to be a charismatic soldier and consequently rose quickly through the military ranks of the time. By his late twenties he had gained the titles of Tribunus (Tribune) and later Comes (Count), period which George had been positioned in Nicomedia as a member of the personal guard attached to Roman Emperor Diocletian (reign 284305).

In 303, Diocletian issued an edict authorising the systematic persecution of Christians across the Empire. His caesar, Galerius, was supposedly responsible for this decision and would continue the persecution during his own reign (305311). It is believed that George was ordered to take part in the persecution but instead confessed to being a Christian himself and criticised the imperial decision. An enraged Diocletian proceeded in ordering the torture of this apparent traitor and his execution. According to the tradition, after various tortures, George was executed by decapitation in front of Nicomedia's defensive wall on April 23, 303. The witness of his suffering convinced Empress Alexandra and Athanasius, a pagan priest, to also become Christians, and so they also joined George in martyrdom as consequence. His body was then returned to Lydda for burial, where Christians soon came to honour George as a martyr.

Veneration as a martyr

The validity of the above account is considered questionable at best. However, his veneration as a martyr appears to have started relatively early. A church in his honour was reportedly built in Lydda during the reign of Constantine the Great (reigned 306337, sole emperor since 324). The church was destroyed in 1010 but was later rebuilt by the Crusaders. In 1191 and during the conflict known as the Third Crusade (11891192), the church was again destroyed by the forces of Saladin, Sultan of the Ayyubid dynasty (reigned 11711193). A new church was erected in 1872 and is still standing.

During the 4th century the veneration of George seems to have spread from Palestine to the rest of the Byzantine Empire. The 5th century would see his fame reach the Western Roman Empire as well. In 494, George was canonised as a saint by Pope Gelasius I (term 492496). However Gelasius included George among those "…whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God." This statement would not prevent the creation of several differing accounts about his life, several of them filled with miracles. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the earliest text preserving fragments of George's highly miraculous narrative is in Acta Sanctorum identified by Hippolyte Delehaye of the scholarly Bollandists to be a palimpsest of the 5th century, 'full beyond belief of extravagances and of quite incredible marvels'.

This practice would continue for centuries. In the iconography of Eastern Orthodoxy George has been depicted as a soldier since at least the 7th century. Since the 9th century another popular depiction surfaced: George on horseback as the apparent slayer of a European dragon. This depiction was based on a popular legend of Christian mythology with George as its central figure: "George and the Dragon".

Notably, not every image of a dragon-slaying saint represents Saint George. For instance, in Italy this figure is known as Saint Mercurialis, the first bishop of the city of Forlì, in Romagna. He, too, often is portrayed in the act of killing a dragon.

The legend of George and the Dragon

The tale found its place in the folk religion of several regions of Europe and Asia Minor, and accounts may vary based on local tradition.

The tale begins with a dragon making its nest at the spring which provides a city-state with water. Consequently, the citizens had to temporarily remove the dragon from its nest in order to collect water. To do so, they offered the dragon a daily human sacrifice. The victim of the day was chosen by drawing lots. Eventually the "winner" of this lottery happened to be the local princess. The local Monarch is occasionally depicted begging for her life with no result. She is offered to the dragon but at this point a travelling George arrives. He faces the dragon, slays it and saves the princess. The grateful citizens then abandon their ancestral Paganism and convert to Christianity.

The account used to be considered factual but this belief has been progressively abandoned. On the other hand few doubt it contains religious symbolism but various interpretations have been suggested. George can be seen as representing Christianity. In both the Christianized Physiologus and the bestiaries of the 9th through 13th centuries, the dragon is a consistent symbol of Satan. Similarly, in traditional Judaic and early Christian allegory and exegesis, both the serpent (with the vast serpent being a dragon) and leviathan represent Satan. George's victory over the dragon, therefore, has been read allegorically as the victory of Christianity (riding the white horse of the Church Universal) over Satan. Indeed, as late as the 17th century, Edmund Spenser would use the story of George in that manner.

However, secular historians consider the roots of the story to be older than Christianity itself. They note that the origin of the saint is said to be partly from Cappadocia in Asia Minor, and that Asia Minor was among the earliest regions to adopt the popular veneration of the saint. The region had long venerated other religious figures. These historians deem it likely that certain elements of their ancient worship could have passed to their Christian successors.

On the other hand, the tale of George and the Dragon is widely considered among secular historians to share a common theme with the ancient Greek myth of Ethiopian princess Andromeda and her saviour and later husband Perseus, slayer of the gorgon Medusa. According to this myth, Perseus beheaded Medusa and George his Dragon in a shared theme of decapitation. Perseus' meeting with Andromeda was placed in her native Ethiopia. In several versions, George meets his Dragon in Libya (North Africa west of Egypt). Both locales can be interpreted to represent distant chthonic kingdoms of magic. The saving of the king's daughter is another shared theme as is the reward-bargain exacted by the respective hero of the stories: Possession of the princess for Perseus and the mass baptism of the king's subjects for George.

Another idea is that Saint George is an alternative manifestation of St Michael, the archangel and captain of the heavenly host.

Saint George's history could be considered an example of Princess and dragon Fairy tales.

Coincidentally, a dragon is an ancient symbol of Wales, conquered by England (King Edward I).

Patronage and remembrance

The cult of St George probably first reached the Kingdom of England when the crusaders returned from the Holy Land in the 12th century. King Edward III of England (reigned 13271377) was known for promoting the codes of knighthood and in 1348 founded the Order of the Garter. During his reign, George came to be recognised as the patron saint of England.

On the Iberian peninsula, George also came to be considered as patron to the Crown of Aragon (Aragon, Catalonia, Valencia and Majorca; Catalan: Sant Jordi) and Portugal (Portuguese language: São Jorge) during their struggles against Castile. Their previous patron Saint James the Great was considered more strongly connected to Castile.

In 1969, Saint George's feast day was reduced to an optional memorial in the Roman Catholic calendar, and the solemnity of his commemoration depends on purely local observance. He is however still honoured as a saint of major importance by Eastern Orthodoxy. His feast date, April 23, is the Day of Aragon (Spain) and is also holiday in Catalonia (Diada de Sant Jordi) where it is traditional to give a rose (the male to the female) and a book (the female to the male) to the loved one.

St George's Day is also celebrated with parades in those countries of which he is the patron saint.

Sources, references and external links

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