Wednesday, November 21, 2012


15th Century painting
by a Georgian artist
Here are the questions we need to answer today:

1.  Who was St. George?
2.  What made him saintly?
3.  How can you recognize him if you see him?
4.  What was going on with that pesky dragon?

Back in the really old days, nobody kept good records or gave out birth certificates, but we think St. George was probably born sometime between the years 275 and 281.
George's father was a Greek named Gerondios, from Cappadoccia Asia Minor, and his mother was also Greek.  Her name was Polychronia, and she came from the city of Lod, which is in present-day Israel.

St. George, 1472,
by Carlo Crivelli

Little Georgios was likely born in Lod, and since his parents were both Christians from noble families, he was also raised as a Christian.  George's father was an officer in the Roman army.  He died when George was 14, and his mother died a few years later.

George decided to become a soldier, too, so he went to Nicomedia, which was in what is now Turkey.  Back in those days, Nicomedia was the imperial city.  Young George was welcomed by the Emperor Diocletian, who had known George's father, Gerondios, and he was given a place in his army.  George did well as a soldier, and by the time he was in his late 20s, he had already earned the rank of Tribunus, serving as part of the imperial guard at Nicomedia.

14th C. illuminated manuscript

Everything was going pretty well until the year 302, when Diocletian made an edict that said all the Christian soldiers in the army should be arrested.  George did not like this edict, so he went to Diocletian himself to explain why it was a bad idea.  Then he stood right in front of the emperor and all the other soldiers, and he said he was a Christian, and he would always worship Jesus.  Diocletian tried to convert George by offering gifts of land, money, and slaves.  All George would have to do was make a sacrifice to the Roman gods.  But George refused to do this.

Diocletian did not want to lose one of his best tribunes, but in the end, he ordered George's execution.  First George was tortured in a lot of horrible ways, and then he had his head cut off in front of the Nicomedia city wall.  The date when this happened was April 23, 303, which is why April 23 is now celebrated as St. George's Day.

St. George and the Dragon,
Gustave Moreau
Okay, so what about the slaying of the dragon?  The Crusaders might have brought this story back to Europe in about 1000 or 1200.  There are several versions of the tale, but I am only going to tell you one which is found in a book called the Golden Legend.

The story took place in a town called Silene, Libya.  There was a lake near the town, and a horrible, scary dragon lived in the lake.  This dragon liked to wander around the countryside and poison people by giving them the plague.  For a while, the villagers appeased the dragon by feeding it two sheep a day, but after a while, the dragon wanted more.  So then the people had to give the dragon one of their children each day.  They drew lots to decide which unlucky child would get eaten.

St. George and the Dragon,
Briton Riviere
One day, the king's daughter, Sadra, was chosen to be fed to the dragon.  The king went crazy with grief, and he told the people they could have all his money and half his kingdom, if his daughter could be spared.  But the people refused.  So the princess was sent out to the lake, dressed as a bride.

Meanwhile, George just happened to be riding through that area, and when he saw the princess by the lake, he asked what was going on.  The princess told him to go away, because he was in danger, but he insisted that he would stay.  Then the dragon came up out of the lake, and George charged at it on his horse.  He wounded the dragon very badly with his lance.  George asked the princess to give him her girdle, and he put it around the dragon's neck.  (Back in those days, a "girdle" was a sash or belt, and not one of those those stretchy undergarments that is supposed to keep your stomach flat.)

St. George and the Dragon,
 Edward Burne-Jones
Anyway, after that, the dragon followed the princess meekly back into town, where everybody was scared to death when they saw it.  But George told them that if they would all agree to become Christians and be baptized, he would kill the dragon right there in front of them.  So the king and all the people started lining up to get baptized.  There were more than 15,000 people who converted that day.  Then George slew the dragon, and its body was taken out of town on four ox carts.  The king built a church on the spot where the dragon died, and a spring of water came from the church altar that could cure any disease.

So how did George become Saint George?  Well, back in the days when George became a martyr, the official process of canonization didn't exist yet.  In fact, it didn't get invented until the 12th century.  But Pope Gelasius declared George a saint in the year 494 because of the brave way he died for his faith.

St. George's Cross
You can usually tell St. George apart from other saints because he is shown as a soldier in a suit of armor or chain mail.  He is often riding a white horse and carrying a lance tipped with a cross.  He may have St. George's Cross on his armor, shield, or banner.  And of course, you may see him busy killing a dragon.

St. George is the patron of many groups and countries, including most especially England.  He was likely chosen the patron saint of that country not long after the Norman conquest.  In 1222, the National Synod of Oxford ordered April 23 to be celebrated as St. George's Feast Day.

It appears that the British really get into celebrating St. George's Day.  There is even an ale made especially for the occasion by a brewer named Wadworth.  You can only get this ale during March and April.  As a dog, I'm not much into drinking ale, so I'm not sure I would want to go to England just to do that.  But if they were serving a nice, juicy leg of lamb along with the ale, I think that might make it worth the effort to go there.

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