Saint George (Greek: Γεώργιος Geṓrgios; Latin: Georgius; AD 275–281 to 23 April 303), according to legend, was a Roman soldier of Greek origin and officer in the Guard of Roman emperor Diocletian, who ordered his death for failing to recant his Christian faith. As a Christian martyr, he later became one of the most venerated saints in Christianity.
In hagiography, as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers and one of the most prominent military saints, he is immortalised in the myth of Saint George and the Dragon. His memorial, Saint George's Day, is traditionally celebrated on the Julian date of April 23 (currently May 6 according to the Gregorian calendar). Numerous countries, cities, professions and organisations claim Saint George as their patron.
His parents were Christians of Greek background; his father Gerontius (Greek: Γερόντιος Gerontios) was a Roman army official from Cappadocia, and his mother Polychronia was a Christian and a Greek native from Lydda in the Roman province of Syria Palaestina (Palestine). Accounts differ regarding whether George was born in Cappadocia or Syria Palaestina, but agree that he was raised at least partly in Lydda.
There is little information on the early life of St George. Two stories tell of his possible origins. One says that he was born in the city of Cappadocia, which is now located in central Turkey. George's parents were both Christian, and they brought him up to be a Christian. His father died when he was fourteen, and his mother took George back to her homeland of Palestine. At seventeen, he joined the Roman army. A second story says that George's father came from Cappadocia. His mother was from Lydda, in Palestine, and George was born in Lydda. Both of his parents were from noble Greek families and gave him the Greek name of Georgios (meaning farmer, earthworker). George's father had been an officer in the Roman army, so George joined the Roman army as soon as he could.
Although the Diocletianic Persecution of 303, associated with military saints because the persecution was aimed at Christians among the professional soldiers of the Roman army, is of undisputed historicity, the identity of Saint George as a historical individual cannot be ascertained. Herbert Thurston in the saint's entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia takes the position that there are no grounds for doubting the historical existence of Saint George, but that, as usual with saints of this early period, the legends surrounding his veneration cannot be treated as historical.
The earliest text preserving fragments of George's narrative is in a Greek hagiography identified by Hippolyte Delehaye of the scholarly Bollandists to be a palimpsest of the fifth century, but banned as heretical by Pope Gelasius I in 496. The compiler of this Acta Sancti Georgii, according to Hippolyte Delehaye, "confused the martyr with his namesake, the celebrated George of Cappadocia, the Arian intruder into the see of Alexandria and enemy of St. Athanasius". An earlier work by Eusebius, Church history, written in the 4th century, contributed to the legend but did not name George or provide significant detail.
A critical edition of a Syriac Acta of Saint George, accompanied by an annotated English translation, was published by E.W. Brooks (1863–1955) in 1925.
The work of the Bollandists Daniel Papebroch, Jean Bolland, and Godfrey Henschen in the 17th century was one of the first pieces of scholarly research to establish the saint's historicity via their publications in Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca. Pope Gelasius I stated that George was among those saints "whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God."
The traditional legends have offered a historicised narration of George's encounter with a dragon. The modern legend that follows below is synthesised from early and late hagiographical sources, omitting the more fantastical episodes. Chief among the legendary sources about the saint is the Golden Legend, which remains the most familiar version in English owing to William Caxton's 15th-century translation.
According to hagiographical tradition, George was born to a Greek Christian noble family in Lydda, Syria Palaestina, during the late third century. He died in Nicomedia in Anatolia. His father, Gerontius, was from Cappadocia, an officer in the Roman army; his mother, Polychronia, was a native of Lydda. Other eastern accounts give the names of his parents as Anastasius and Theobaste.
At the age of 14, George lost his father; a few years later, George's mother died.
George then decided to go to Nicomedia and present himself to Diocletian to apply for a career as a soldier. Diocletian welcomed him with open arms, as he had known his father, Gerontius—one of his finest soldiers. By his late twenties, George was promoted to the rank of military tribune and stationed as an imperial guard of the Emperor at Nicomedia.
On 24 February 303, Diocletian, influenced by Galerius, issued an edict that every Christian soldier in the army should be arrested and every other soldier should offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods of the time. However, George objected, and with the courage of his faith, approached the Emperor and ruler. Diocletian was upset, not wanting to lose his best tribune and the son of his best official, Gerontius. But George loudly renounced the Emperor's edict, and in front of his fellow soldiers and tribunes he claimed himself to be a Christian. Diocletian attempted to convert George, even offering gifts of land, money, and slaves if he made a sacrifice to the Roman gods; he made many offers, but George never accepted.Recognizing the futility of his efforts and insisting on upholding his edict, Diocletian ordered that George be executed for his refusal. Before the execution, George gave his wealth to the poor and prepared himself. After various torture sessions, including laceration on a wheel of swords during which he was resuscitated three times, George was executed by decapitation before Nicomedia's city wall, on 23 April 303. A witness of his suffering convinced Empress Alexandra of Rome and Athanasius, a pagan priest, to become Christians, as well, so they joined George in martyrdom. His body was returned to Lydda for burial, where Christians soon came to honour him as a martyr.
Edward Gibbon argued that George, or at least the legend from which the above is distilled, is based on George of Cappadocia, a notorious Arian bishop who was Athanasius of Alexandria's most bitter rival, and that it was he who in time became Saint George of England. J. B. Bury (16 October 1861 – 1 June 1927), who edited the 1906 edition of The Decline and Fall, "this theory of Gibbon's has nothing to be said for it." He adds that: "the connection of St. George with a dragon-slaying legend does not relegate him to the region of the myth".
In 1856, Ralph Waldo Emerson published a book of essays entitled English Traits. In it, he wrote a paragraph on the history of Saint George. Emerson compared the legend of Saint George to the legend of Amerigo Vespucci, calling the former "an impostor" and the latter "a thief." The editorial notes appended to the 1904 edition of Emerson's complete works state that Emerson based his account on the work of Gibbon, and that current evidence seems to show that the real St. George was not George the Arian of Cappadocia. Merton M. Sealts also quotes Edward Waldo Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson's youngest son, as stating that he believed his father's account was derived from Gibbon and that the real St. George "was apparently another who died two generations earlier."
Saint George and the dragon
In the medieval romances, the lance with which Saint George slew the dragon was called Ascalon after the Levantine city of Ashkelon, today in Israel. The name Ascalon was used by Winston Churchill for his personal aircraft during World War II, according to records at Bletchley Park. In Sweden, the princess rescued by Saint George is held to represent the kingdom of Sweden, while the dragon represents an invading army. Several sculptures of Saint George battling the dragon can be found in Stockholm, the earliest inside Storkyrkan ("The Great Church") in the Old Town.
Some evidence links the legend back to very old Egyptian and Phoenician sources in a late antique statue of Horus fighting a "dragon". This ties the legendary George and to some extent, the historical George, to various ancient sources using mythological and linguistic arguments. In Egyptian mythology, the god Setekh murdered his brother Osiris. Horus, the son of Osiris, avenged his father's death by killing Setekh. This iconography of the horseman with spear overcoming evil was widespread throughout the Christian period.
Veneration as a martyr
A titular church built in Lydda during the reign of Constantine the Great (reigned 306–37) was consecrated to "a man of the highest distinction", according to the church history of Eusebius; the name of the titulus "patron" was not disclosed, but later he was asserted to have been George.
By the time of the early Muslim conquests of the mostly Christian and Zoroastrian Middle East and in the seventh century, a basilica dedicated to the saint in Lydda existed. The church was destroyed by Muslims in 1010, but was later rebuilt and dedicated to Saint George by the Crusaders. In 1191 and during the conflict known as the Third Crusade (1189–92), the church was again destroyed by the forces of Saladin, Sultan of the Ayyubid dynasty (reigned 1171–93). A new church was erected in 1872 and is still standing.
During the fourth century, the veneration of George spread from Palestine through Lebanon to the rest of the Byzantine Empire – though the martyr is not mentioned in the Syriac Breviarium – and Georgia. In Georgia, the feast day on November 23 is credited to Saint Nino of Cappadocia, who in Georgian hagiography is a relative of Saint George, credited with bringing Christianity to the Georgians in the fourth century. By the fifth century, the veneration of Saint George had reached the Christian Western Roman Empire, as well: in 494, George was canonized as a saint by Pope Gelasius I, among those "whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to [God]."
In England, he was mentioned among the martyrs by Bede. The Georgslied is an adaptation of his legend in Old High German, composed in the late 9th century. The earliest dedication to the saint in England is a church at Fordington, Dorset that is mentioned in the will of Alfred the Great.
An apparition of George heartened the Franks at the siege of Antioch, 1098, and made a similar appearance the following year at Jerusalem. The chivalric military Order of Sant Jordi d'Alfama was established in Aragon in 1201, Republic of Genoa, Kingdom of Hungary (1326), and by Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor, and in England the Synod of Oxford, 1222 declared Saint George's Day a feast day in the kingdom of England. Edward III of England put his Order of the Garter under the banner of St. George, probably in 1348. The chronicler Jean Froissart observed the English invoking Saint George as a battle cry on several occasions during the Hundred Years' War. In his rise as a national saint, George was aided by the very fact that the saint had no legendary connection with England, and no specifically localized shrine, as that of Thomas Becket at Canterbury: "Consequently, numerous shrines were established during the late fifteenth century," Muriel C. McClendon has written, "and his did not become closely identified with a particular occupation or with the cure of a specific malady."
The establishment of George as a popular saint and protective giant in the West that had captured the medieval imagination was codified by the official elevation of his feast to a festum duplex at a church council in 1415, on the date that had become associated with his martyrdom, 23 April. Wide latitude existed from community to community in celebration of the day across late medieval and early modern England, and no uniform "national" celebration elsewhere, a token of the popular and vernacular nature of George's cultus and its local horizons, supported by a local guild or confraternity under George's protection, or the dedication of a local church. When the English Reformation severely curtailed the saints' days in the calendar, Saint George's Day was among the holidays that continued to be observed.
In the General Roman Calendar, the feast of Saint George is on 23 April. In the Tridentine Calendar of 1568, it was given the rank of "Semidouble". In Pope Pius XII's 1955 calendar this rank was reduced to "Simple", and in Pope John XXIII's 1960 calendar to a "Commemoration". Since Pope Paul VI's 1969 revision, it appears as an optional "Memorial". In some countries, such as England, the rank is higher. In England, it is a Solemnity (Roman Catholic) or Feast (Church of England): if it falls between Palm Sunday and the Second Sunday of Easter inclusive, it is transferred to the Monday after the Second Sunday of Easter.
Saint George is very much honoured by the Eastern Orthodox Church, wherein he is referred to as a "Great Martyr", and in Oriental Orthodoxy overall. His major feast day is on April 23 (Julian calendar 23 April currently corresponds to Gregorian calendar May 6). If, however, the feast occurs before Easter, it is celebrated on Easter Monday, instead. The Russian Orthodox Church also celebrates two additional feasts in honour of St. George. One is on 3 November, commemorating the consecration of a cathedral dedicated to him in Lydda during the reign Constantine the Great (305–37). When the church was consecrated, the relics of the Saint George were transferred there. The other feast is on 26 November for a church dedicated to him in Kiev, circa 1054.
In Bulgaria, Saint George's day (Bulgarian: Гергьовден) is celebrated on 6 May, when it is customary to slaughter and roast a lamb. Saint George's day is also a public holiday.
In Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria refers to Saint George as the "Prince of Martyrs" and celebrates his martyrdom on the 23rd of Paremhat of the Coptic calendar equivalent to 1 May. The Copts also celebrate the consecration of the first church dedicated to him on seventh of the month of Hatour of the Coptic calendar usually equivalent to 17 November.
A highly celebrated saint in both the Western and Eastern Christian churches, a large number of Patronages of Saint George exist throughout the world.
Saint George is the patron saint of England. His cross forms the national flag of England, and features within the Union Jack of the United Kingdom, and other national flags containing the Union Flag, such as those of Australia and New Zealand. Traces of the cult of Saint George in England antedate the Norman conquest of England in the 11th century; by the 14th century, the saint had been declared both the patron saint and the protector of the royal family.
The country of Georgia, where devotions to the saint date back to the fourth century, is not technically named after the saint, but is a well-attested back-formation of the English name. However, a large number of towns and cities around the world are. Saint George is one of the patron Saints of Georgia; the name Georgia (Sakartvelo in Georgian) is an anglicisation of Gurj, ultimately derived from the Persian word gurj/gurjān ("wolf"). Chronicles describing the land as Georgie or Georgia in French and English, date from the early Middle Ages, as written by the travellers John Mandeville and Jacques de Vitry "because of their special reverence for Saint George", but these accounts have been seen as folk etymology and are rejected by the scholarly community.
Exactly 365 Orthodox churches in Georgia are named after Saint George according to the number of days in a year. According to myth, St. George was cut into 365 pieces after he fell in battle and every single piece was spread throughout the entire country. According to another myth, Saint George appeared in person during the Battle of Didgori to support the Georgian victory over the Seljuq army and the Georgian uprising against Persian rule. Saint George is considered by many Georgians to have special meaning as a symbol of national liberation.
Malta and Gozo
Saint George is also one of the patron saints of the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo although this has been contested. In a battle between the Maltese and the Moors, Saint George was alleged to have been seen with Saint Paul and Saint Agata, protecting the Maltese. Besides being the patron of Victoria where St. George's Basilica, Malta is dedicated to him, Saint George is the protector of the island Gozo.
Devotions to Saint George in Portugal date back to the 12th century. Nuno Álvares Pereira attributed the victory of the Portuguese in the battle of Aljubarrota in 1385 to Saint George. During the reign of John I of Portugal (1357–1433), Saint George became the patron saint of Portugal and the King ordered that the saint's image on the horse be carried in the Corpus Christi procession. The flag of Saint George (white with red cross) was also carried by the Portuguese troops and hoisted in the fortresses, during the 15th century. "Portugal and Saint George" became the battle cry of the Portuguese troops, being still today the battle cry of the Portuguese Army, with simply "Saint George" being the battle cry of the Portuguese Navy.
Saint George is the patron saint of Romania and a number of churches, towns, and geographical areas are dedicated to him, including city of Sfântu Gheorghe in Covasna County, and Sfântu Gheorghe branch of the river Danube.
Saint George, San Chorche in Aragonese, is the patron of Aragon, one of the autonomous communities of Spain. This festivity is celebrated on the 23th of April as the “The Day of Aragon”. Legend says that the King of Aragon, Pedro I started the conquest of Huesca in 1096, which was under the rule of the Taifa in Zaragoza, following the desires of his father, Sancho I of Aragon. The fight was hard and difficult, Christian militia trusted totally in God to win the battle. God sent Saint George, who descended from Heaven riding on a horse, carrying with him a maroon cross to the battlefield. After seeing God’s signal, militiamen came back to the battle field with more energy than ever. Muslims couldn’t believe what was happening, they were defeated, abandoning the battlefield rapidly. After half a year of being trapped, Pedro I finally entered the city.
To celebrate this victory, Saint George’s cross was used as the insignia of Huesca and Aragon, honouring his name since he was their saviour. Nowadays, this cross is still present on Aragon’s shield.
The popular story which is told to school children and other places, is that Saint George defeated a dragon, and is celebrated by everybody throughout the community.
Saint George (Sant Jordi in Catalan) is the patron saint of Catalonia. His cross appears in many buildings and local flags, including the one of the Catalan capital, Barcelona. The Catalan tradition usually locates the events of his legend in the town of Montblanc, near Tarragona.
By the 15th century Catalan men used to celebrate Saint George's Day by giving roses to women. The tradition has been kept alive despite the attemps of several Spanish regimes throughout history. Nowadays Saint George is not a public holiday anymore but is a very popular celebration. Women receive roses (and often books) and, since the 20th century, men receive books (and sometimes roses) and the celebration is also used to celebrate Catalan national identity, culture and literature and romantic love.
One of the highest civil distinction awarded in Catalonia is the St George's Cross (Creu de Sant Jordi).
Veneration in the Levant
A tradition exists in the Holy Land of Christians going to an Eastern Orthodox shrine of Saint George at Beit Jala; Jews also attend the site in the belief that the prophet Elijah was buried there.
William Dalrymple, reviewing the literature in 1999, tells us that J. E. Hanauer in his 1907 book Folklore of the Holy Land: Muslim, Christian and Jewish "mentioned a shrine in the village of Beit Jala, beside Bethlehem, which at the time was frequented by Christians who regarded it as the birthplace of St. George and by Jews who regarded it as the burial place of the Prophet Elias. According to Hanauer, in his day the monastery was "a sort of madhouse. Deranged persons of all the three faiths are taken thither and chained in the court of the chapel, where they are kept for forty days on bread and water, the Eastern Orthodox priest at the head of the establishment now and then reading the Gospel over them, or administering a whipping as the case demands.' In the 1920s, according to Taufiq Canaan's Mohammedan Saints and Sanctuaries in Palestine, nothing seemed to have changed, and all three communities were still visiting the shrine and praying together."
Dalrymple himself visited the place in 1995. "I asked around in the Christian Quarter in Jerusalem, and discovered that the place was very much alive. With all the greatest shrines in the Christian world to choose from, it seemed that when the local Arab Christians had a problem – an illness, or something more complicated: a husband detained in an Israeli prison camp, for example – they preferred to seek the intercession of Saint George in his grubby little shrine at Beit Jala rather than praying at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem or the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem." He asked the priest at the shrine "Do you get many Muslims coming here?" The priest replied, "We get hundreds! Almost as many as the Christian pilgrims. Often, when I come in here, I find Muslims all over the floor, in the aisles, up and down."
The Encyclopædia Britannica quotes G.A. Smith in his Historic Geography of the Holy Land p. 164 saying "The Mahommedans who usually identify St. George with the prophet Elijah, at Lydda confound his legend with one about Christ himself. Their name for Antichrist is Dajjal, and they have a tradition that Jesus will slay Antichrist by the gate of Lydda. The notion sprang from an ancient bas-relief of George and the Dragon on the Lydda church. But Dajjal may be derived, by a very common confusion between n and l, from Dagon, whose name two neighbouring villages bear to this day, while one of the gates of Lydda used to be called the Gate of Dagon."
Saint George is known and revered by Muslims and also venerated by Christians throughout the Middle East, from Egypt to Asia Minor. His stature in these regions derives from the fact that he has become somewhat of a composite paradoxical character mixing elements from Biblical, Quranic, and folkloric sources, at times being the partially contrapositive of Khidr.
According to Elizabeth Anne Finn's Home in the Holy land (1866):
St George killed the dragon in this country; and the place is shown close to Beyroot. Many churches and convents are named after him. The church at Lydda is dedicated to St George; so is a convent near Bethlehem, and another small one just opposite the Jaffa gate, and others beside. The Arabs believe that St. George can restore mad people to their senses, and to say a person has been sent to St. George's is equivalent to saying he has been sent to a madhouse. It is singular that the Moslem Arabs adopted this veneration for St George, and send their mad people to be cured by him, as well as the Christians, but they commonly call him El Khudder—The Green—according to their favourite manner of using epithets instead of names. Why he should be called green, however, I cannot tell—unless it is from the colour of his horse. Gray horses are called green in Arabic.
Arms and flag
It became fashionable in the 15th century, with the full development of classical heraldry, to provide attributed arms to saints and other historical characters from the pre-heraldic ages. The widespread attribution to Saint George of the red cross on a white field in western art - "St George's Cross" - dates to the early 15th century, but the association may have been established by the early 14th century of the red cross used as insignia cruxata comunis by the city of Genoa and its patron saint George. Edward III of England chose Saint George as the patron saint of his Order of the Garter in 1348, and also took to using a red-on-white cross in the hoist of his Royal Standard.
The association of Saint George with the red-on-white probably first arose in Genoa, which had adopted these tinctures for their flag and George as their patron saint in the 12th century. A vexillum beati Georgii is mentioned in the Genovese annals for the year 1198, referring to a red flag with a depiction of Saint George and the dragon. An illumination of this flag is shown in the annals for the year 1227. The Genoese flag with the red cross was used alongside this "George's flag", from at least 1218, and was known as the insignia cruxata comunis Janue ("cross ensign of the commune of Genoa"). The flag showing the saint himself was the city's principal war flag, but the flag showing the plain cross was used alongside it in the 1240s.
The term "Saint George's cross" was at first associated with any plain Greek cross touching the edges of the field (not necessarily red on white). Thomas Fuller in 1647 spoke of "the plain or St George's cross" as "the mother of all the others" (that is, the other heraldic crosses).
Iconography and models
Saint George is most commonly depicted in early icons, mosaics, and frescos wearing armour contemporary with the depiction, executed in gilding and silver colour, intended to identify him as a Roman soldier. Particularly after the Fall of Constantinople and Saint George's association with the crusades, he is often portrayed mounted upon a white horse. Thus, a 2003 Vatican stamp (issued on the anniversary of the Saint's death) depicts an armoured Saint George atop a white horse, killing the dragon. Eastern Orthodox iconography also permits Saint George to ride a black horse, as in a Russian icon in the British museum collection. This may also reflect a modern Russian interpretation as depicting not a killing, but as an internal struggle, against ourselves and the evil among us. In the south Lebanese village of Mieh Mieh, the Saint George Church for Melkite Catholics commissioned for its 75th jubilee in 2012 (under the guidance of Mgr Sassine Gregoire), the only icons in the world portraying the whole life of Saint George, as well as the scenes of his torture and martyrdom (drawn in eastern iconographic style).
Saint George may also be portrayed with St. Demetrius, another early soldier saint. When the two saintly warriors are together and mounted upon horses, they may resemble earthly manifestations of the archangels Michael and Gabriel. Eastern traditions distinguish the two as St. George rides a white horse and St. Demetrius a red horse St. George can also be identified by his spearing a dragon, whereas St. Demetrius may be spearing a human figure, representing Maximian.
During the early second millennium, Saint George became a model of chivalry in works of literature, including medieval romances. In the 13th century, Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, compiled the Legenda Sanctorum, (Readings of the Saints) also known as Legenda Aurea (the Golden Legend). Its 177 chapters (182 in some editions) include the story of Saint George, among many others. After the invention of the printing press, the book became a bestseller, second only to the Bible among books published by early English printer William Caxton (circa 1415-1492).