Voragine's The Golden Legend, Christian myths
St. George was a Christian who is said to have lived in Anatolia, the area now known as Turkey, in the third century. No historical record of the man is known to exist. Over the centuries, legendary tales about his courage and dedication to God grew in popularity, and he was granted the status of sainthood by the Catholic Church.
The most popular tale about St. George describes how he killed a terrifying dragon. The dragon was threatening the citizens of a local town. The people decided to cast lots each day to choose one person for the dragon to eat, thus sparing the rest of the population. One day the king's daughter was selected to be the dragon's victim. As the dragon prepared to devour her, St. George arrived. He charged forward, made the sign of the cross, and killed the dragon. Impressed with both his faith and his strength, the people of the city decided to convert to Christianity.
Other tales concern St. George's martyrdom, or death for his Christian beliefs, which took place in Palestine. The Roman government there was punishing Christians for their beliefs, and St. George openly opposed their policies. The Romans tortured him for his resistance and beheaded him in 303 ce.
St. George in Context
St. George was an important character in early Christianity because he offered something most Christian figures did not: he was a soldier who fought and conquered in the name of Christ. Although most early Christian figures were described as steadfast in their beliefs, very few actively fought to further those beliefs. For this reason, St. George became especially important during the Crusades, the period from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries in which European Christians were called by the pope to conquer non-Christians in order to “reclaim” the holy lands in and around Jerusalem in the Middle East.
The legends about St. George spread to Europe during the Crusades, when armies of Europeans traveled to the Middle East. In the 1300s, George became the patron, or protector, saint of England. He is often pictured in Christian art carrying a sword and shield, mounted on a white horse, and wearing armor decorated with a red cross on a white background—a look mimicked by the Crusaders, who took the red cross on a white background as their uniform. The image of St. George slaying the dragon is also shown on the official coat of arms of the city of Moscow, as well as many other locations throughout Eastern Europe.
Today, St. George's position as England's patron saint is touched by controversy. His traditional banner, the red cross on the white background, now associated with the Crusaders' invasion of the Middle East hundreds of years ago, can be seen as insulting to England's growing Muslim population. Many see England's decision to support U.S. military action in Iraq as a type of new Crusade against Islam, and St. George as a symbol of Christian aggression against non-Christians.
A Famous Rallying Cry
William Shakespeare used St. George in one of the most famous military rallying speeches in English literature. In his historical play Henry V, King Henry besieges the French city of Harfleur in 1415 and meets stiff resistance. Shakespeare's Henry, nicknamed Harry, urges his soldiers onward:
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger; ...
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”
Key Themes and Symbols
In Christian mythology, St. George is one of the most popular symbols of bravery and religious dedication, an ideal example of a Christian for others to follow. The white horse St. George rides is seen as a symbol of purity and righteousness. The dragon of the myth is sometimes said to symbolize a non-Christian group or deity; this is emphasized by the fact that after St. George slays the beast, the townspeople all convert to Christianity. In this way, St. George represents the power of Christianity to conquer non-Christian belief systems.
St. George in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
The most notable source of information about St. George is Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century collection of stories about the lives of various Catholic saints. The story of St. George and the dragon has been retold numerous times throughout the centuries, and has appeared in two famous paintings by Raphael, as well as paintings by Tintoretto, Peter Paul Rubens, and Gustave Moreau. Several elements of the myth were used in the 1981 fantasy film Dragonslayer, though St. George does not appear as a character in the film.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
St. George was an important symbol to Christians in the years of the Crusades. The Crusades, like modern conflicts in the Middle East, were essentially “holy wars” fought by two groups of differing beliefs who both considered a certain region sacred to their religion. Do you think the myth of St. George promotes the idea of using violence as a way to conquer people with different beliefs? Why or why not?
SEE ALSO Dragons