Who is Saint George?
Saint George (c. 284 – 303) is a familiar name with millions of Christians and many non-Christians throughout the world. For the Christians it evokes a saint who is honored in the churches of both East and West as one of the most illustrious martyrs of Christ and Christian devotion to him goes back to the time of his glorious death around the beginning of the 4th. century after Christ. St. George’s popularity began to spread from the time of his martyrdom and flourished especially during the 6th. century when his renown as a wonder-worker spread like wildfire throughout the east and traveled, along the numerous routes of the Mediterranean crisscrossing its waters to reach its hinterlands to the farthest Christian outposts of the ancient Western world.
Pretty little is known about St. George although his devotees are at no loss for words to depict him as a young Christian nobleman who made the Christians proud at a time when the dominant pagans were time and again making them eat dust. Written accounts of his heroic defiance of the emperor and of his multiple sufferings at the hands of expert pagan torturers were already circulating in the 5th century and especially during the 6th.
A few of these accounts or “legenda” have survived down to our time but the interpolations that they suffered at the hands of overzealous enthusiasts who where unabashedly eager to enhance St. George’s reputation as a wonder-worker steadily rendered them almost entirely unreliable.
It is now next to impossible to distinguish in them historical fact from legendary composition. What we know with reliability about St. George is the fact of his martyrdom, the immediate kindling of his cult at the site of his tomb just outside the town of Diospolis in Roman Palestine, and those basic details pertaining to the core of his life story as a Christian youth which may be scientifically gleaned from those legendary accounts of his life and passion which may have retained traces of a primitive and authentic record.
The problem concerning reliable historical knowledge about St. George had already risen in 5th. century Rome. The famous decree entitled De libris recipiendis, attributed to Gelasius, the bishop of Rome who died in 496 attests to the interesting fact that certain apocryphal writings about St. George which were circulating at the time were considered by the Roman Church to be suspect. By his decree, however, the pope was by no means issuing a refutation of the existence of St. George since the document, commonly known as the Decretum Gelasianum, stated that St. George was one of the saints “whose names are justly revered among men but whose actions are only known to God”. Rather than rejecting the due veneration of St George, the pope was seeking to purify it from the often outrageous fabrications that heretical Christian sects, mainly eastern, had added to the authentic account. The popularity of St George nevertheless continued to rise not only in the east, whence the martyr hailed, but also in the western Church notwithstanding this Church’s own numerous and locally renowned martyrs.
The legend of the Dragon
The legend of St George and the dragon is simply what it is – a legend. Its roots, though, are deeply theological. The dragon is the imagery often borrowed by Scripture to describe the horror of evil and its deceptively invincible and corrosive power. It was the later Fathers of the Church who first associated the allegory of the dragon with St George and they did it to manifest the glory of his triumph ;over the dominant pagan religions and their cruel exponents who so persistently harassed and persecuted Christ and his Church.
Since early times the allegory of St George slaying the dragon was often taken up in Christian preaching and literature but it did not really become widespread until the beginning of the second millennium of the Christian era. Then it flourished, indeed, ti the credit of the Dominican friar Jacobus de (Jacob of) Voragine (c. 1230-1298), who hailed from Genoa and did what any good contemporary communications officer would have done: visualize the allegory and render it accessible to the man in the street by making it manifest and catching for the easiest and widest possible consumption. By the 13th century copies of the passiones and encomia of St George had become very scarce in the western Church. De Voragine’s book Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend) filled the gap for the reading population avid for the lives of the saints. Moreover it provided a growing need for an expanding iconography of St George hungry for thematic materia. It is a pity that as a result the life of St George was reduced to the slaying of the dragon, a legendary episode which constitutes a very late development in the formation of the mystery of St. George. It is difficult to trace this legend, as distinct from the allegory, back to any time earlier than the 11th or 12th century.
Whatever one may think of the legend of St George and the dragon today, there is no doubt concerning the magnetic power it held over the people of the Middle Ages. However, while on the one hand this legend magnified the popularity of St George as the invincible warrior of Christ beyond any psychological barrier, on the other hand it contained the seed which would later be sown to undermine the credibility of his existence, rendering it at least as suspect as the existence of the dragon that St George had supposedly slay. It remains though that the association of St George with a dragon-slaying legend does not by itself relegate him to the region of myth as it does not relegate to such myth people of undoubted historical existence to whom similar episodes have been attributed.
Nevertheless, one often comes across the perplexed Christians, including Catholics, who may wonder about, if not indeed question, the existence of St George. This irrational bewilderment expresses, at best, a typical western aphoristic of Protestant matrix. It is in fact mostly amongst people who pertain to, or are influence by, Deformation Christianity that the assumption concerning the “dubiousness” of St George’s cult is flaunted. The origin of such dubiousness is entirely foreign to traditional Catholic and Orthodox Christianity.
It was during the Protestant Reformation that the saints, their relevance as well as their very existence, were first brought into question. It was the time when the most Catholic of Christian icons, whether theological or simply cultural, were being viciously attacked and systematically undermined.
It is no wonder that St George, whose veneration was one of the most prominent features of popular mediaeval piety, was not spared by Protestant reformers such as Calvin, and also by some of their cultural byproducts who would eventually come to be regarded as Enlightenment intellectuals.
At the forefront of the latter was the British historian Edward Gibbon whose voice cut through savagely in the flesh of writers of the early Church and the biographers of the saints venerated by it. This eminent scholar did this at huge cost to his credibility where he addresses ecclesiastical history. These people, with their respective bias, however, proved to be very influential in the formation of the contemporary Western view concerning the early martyrs and saints.
Fr Hippolyte Delehaye (1859-1941) who would acquit himself admirably as the greatest modern scholar of the lives of the saints (hagiography), did much to correct it. This erudite Jesuit priest dedicated most of his life to the exploration of the origins of Christian hagiography. He wanted to provide solid historical foundation for those saints whom the church venerates. With regard to St George, throughout his work, this eminent writer points out that there can be no rational doubt concerning his existence.
The testimony of pilgrims
For incontrovertible evidence, Delahaye mentions and emphasizes the veneration in which St George’s tomb at Diospolis (Lydda) was held from the time of his glorious death. The sanctuary constructed over St George’s sepulcher was visited by; devotees and pilgrims from all over Christian Europe since the early 5th century the time of his martyrdom and death. The narratives of such early pilgrims as Theodosius (De sity terrae sanctae, 530 AD), both of whom prayed at the site of St George’s remains at Lydda in the 6th century, testify not only to their contemporaries but speak also about those who preceded them at this place hallowed by the martyr’s remains. It was there that the devotion of the Christians to St George was focused. It was from there that it radiated far away to distant cities and lands. There is hardly any place in the Christian world where St George is not venerated as patron saint or protector.
Nevertheless little is known with certainty about this young man whose heroic witness to Christ is still a source of inspiration and love almost seventeen centuries after his death. Born, according to Christian tradition, of Christian parents most probably around the year 284 AD, young George must have been one of the many Christian soldiers and officers who, in those years of tolerance, were allowed to serve with honor in the Roman army.
Following the anti-Christian edict of February 303, George refused to renounce his Christian faith and subsequently suffered martyrdom and death in the same year. He soon became one of the earliest and most renowned Christian martyrs of Diocletian’s great persecution of 303.
Immediately after Constantine’s edict of tolerance (AD 314) churches were dedicated in his honor not only at the site of his tomb in Palestine but also in Syria and nearby regions. The remains of the Constantinian church at Lydda (then Diospolis and today Lod, in Israel) can still be seen and examined notwithstanding the ravages of time and inter-religious conflicts throughout the passage of seventeen hundred years.
More outstanding is the sixth century church of ‘Mar Georgis’ (the Lord George) which still stands and serves the local Christians at “Ezraa” in Syria. Other early churches are known to have been dedicated to St George, as evidenced by extant or recorded inscriptions. One of these inscriptions speaks of a church which around the middle of the 4th century was dedicated to “St George and his companions” – that is within living memory of the saint’s death.
The twentieth century has produced its fair share of publications on St George, some of which merit great interest. Salvatore Borrelli’s Il magalomartire San Giorgio (Naples, 1902) has a good and ample section on his veneration through Christian history and throughout the world.
Delehaye, to whom reference has already been made, has produced three scholarly works which constitute required texts for any study of St George, foremost among which is Les legendes greques des saints militaires (1909). George of Lydda by Ssir E. A. Wallis Budge (1930) is another very important contribution to the study of his “culture”. It includes the Ethiopic texts of St George housed in the British Museum in both their original language and in translation.
There are several other recent and not so recent publications which cannot be ignored by scholars in hagiography, namely, pilgrims’ journals, archaeological surveys and hagiographic studies. In 1983, Mgr. Dante Balboni of the Vatican’s Apostolic Library published a small but noteworthy study on St George with an added archaeological report on the sepulchral basilica remains and extant relics of the saint.
People all over the world, particularly Christians of the Eastern Churches, venerate the icons and relics of “The Great Martyr”, as the Greeks describe St. George. It does not really matter whether the relics venerated are authentic or not, and notwithstanding the written form of the icon kissed, what is being venerated is not the relic or the wooden icon itself but the holy person that it represents, and the splendid beauty and divine power with which God had amply endowed him.
However, St George is not revered only by Christians. Palestinian Muslim are often seen joining and mixing with local Christians at Lod and elsewhere at shrines dedicated to El Khidr, as they call St George. It is said that this oarticularly takes place at Beit Jala, in the Holy Land, where a church marks St George’s reputed birthplace.
“Do you get many Muslims coming here?” the English writer William Dalyrymple asked the local priest in 1995. “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 Arab Muslims go to the “grubby little shrine” of Beit Jala and to the other more popular sanctuary at Lod, on the outskirts of Palestinian Ramallah, to petition St George for cures, for the release of a detained husband or son, for babies and their sage delivery and for a good turnover in lambing and crops. Prayers for Christians and Muslim mean much the same. It is a unique case of proper inter-religious relations and coexistence in the manner that such relations have been the norm for so many centuries in Palestine.
The Maltese islands
The Christian communities in Malta and Gozo, that is the majority Roman Catholic community, as well as the Greek Orthodox and the Anglicans, venerate St George according to each community’s respective tradition. One of the oldest and most important parishes of Malta, that of Qormi, is dedicated to St George. This church boasts of many works of art and a very beautiful status, in baroque style, of the billage’s patron saint. However, I am sure none of the churches referred to matches the beauty and splendor of St George’s Basilica in Gozo, or the pomp and solemnity of liturgy with which this vibrant church is synonymous.
Since Byzantine times, when the veneration of St George spread like wildfire throughout the Christian countries of the Middle East and the Mediterranean, down to our times, the name of St George has evoked the Christian faith, inspired trust in God’s care for his people, and has become a source of identity for many peoples throughout the world, and no less for the people of this little Mediterranean island of Gozo.