Driving into Victoria from Mġarr on the 23rd of April, one may notice something different. Many houses would have a white flag and with a red cross intersecting it flying on them especially if there is a slight breeze or if the wind is blowing. For those who are not locals, this may seem a strange vision to look upon. If you are a taxi-driver and have English people travelling with you, they make even pose a couple of questions, asking for an explanation for what they behold.
However, for the locals, this is business as usual. Or perhaps it is not, at least in Victoria! The same can be said for the old town of Ħal-Qormi in Malta. The 23rd of April is the liturgical commemoration of St George! No other saint has been deemed controversial as this one, probably due the little dragon that is depicted and presented at the foot of the saint in paintings, sculptures and art in general. Whatever one may say about the saint, the bond between the locals and St George has become legendary. History, culture, local traditions and architecture itself prove the point without further need for discussion. Since the 23rd of April is a solemnity for us parishioners of St George, it is only right to provide some notes about his cult and devotion.
After his martyrdom in April 303 AD, the cult of St George flourished. Tradition has it that he was martyred in today’s Turkey, precisely in the city of Nicomedia in the Cappadocia region. However it was it Lydda, today’s Lod, in Palestine that his burial took place. Palestinians have particular reason to display the symbol and revere the early Christian martyr. For them he is a local hero who opposed the persecution of his fellow Christians in the Holy Land (https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-27048219).
It was from Syria and Palestine that the cult of St George spread throughout the East. He then became popular in the Church of the West during the Crusade era. Hundreds of towns, villages and cities around the world recognize him as their patron saint. There are various churches dedicated to St George in Palestine and the village of Taybeh has a particular bond with the saint. The Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem is also dedicated to the saint. One of the most notable churches in Palestine dedicated to him is the one at Burqin. Burqin Church (Arabic: كنيسة برقين) or Church of St George (Arabic: كنيسة القديس جاورجيوس) is a Greek Orthodox church established during the Byzantine period and located in the Palestinian West Bank town of Burqin. It is considered to be the fifth holiest Christian holy place and the third-oldest church in the world. The church has been restored several times and is currently in use by the village’s small Christian (Greek Orthodox) community.
Georgia (once part of the Soviet Union), Russia itself, Armenia, Lebanon, Portugal, Cataluña in Spain and England and our Maltese islands are among the various countries that revere St George either as their main protector or as one of their patron saints. Italy abounds with towns and villages dedicated to him and the Cathedral Church or Duomo of Ferrara bears his name. Sicily is no exception; Modica and Ragusa also have churches and place-names called after him. The Aragonese knights within the Order of St John had him as their patron saint as is attested in the chapel dedicated to him at St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta.
The cult of St George in the Maltese islands is ancient. San Ġorg ta’ Ġebel Ciantar in the limits of Siġġiewi probably goes back to pre-Norman times; the Byzantines who came to Malta in about 533 A.D. under Belisarius must have introduced the cult to the islands. The Normans, a warrior nation, would have promoted it. The Ħal-Qormi parish church is mentioned in the Rollo De Mello of 1435 as one of the first ten parishes of the island of Malta and is an archmatrix church. In her study The Mediterranean Artistic Context of Late Medieval Malta (1091-1530) (Midsea Books, Malta 2013, p. 150 ), Dr Charlene Vella writes extensively about the frescoes of St George at the Ħal-Millieri Church while the late Professor Godfrey Wettinger lists the place-names called after the saints in his monumental Place-Names of the Maltese Islands ca. 1300-1800 (PEG Ltd, Malta 2000, pp. 493, 494).
The Parish Church of St George in Victoria is first mentioned in its parish status in the Bull of Pope Nicholas of the Jubilee Year of 1450. Other churches of St George existed in Gozo but have been profaned and destroyed (cfr Ġorġ Aquilina OFM, San Ġorġ Martri ta’ Kristu, 2003).
Devotion towards the saint has become part and parcel of our rich Christian heritage. He has also been asked to intercede for our islands during difficult times. It is therefore our duty to follow on the footsteps of our fathers and ask him to intercede for us also in this day and age and especially during the hard times we have fallen up as we battle against the unseen enemy of our generation.
St George Martyr, Patron Saint of Gozo, pray for us!