One thing the serious student of icons learns quite soon is not to mistake the accounts of the lives of the saints celebrated in Eastern Orthodoxy for actual history. Though the percentage of fact to fiction varies from saint to saint, some, as we have seen in previous postings here, are entirely fictional.
The icon saint I want to discuss today is one of the most prominent, and was famous not only in Russia but also throughout the pre-Protestant Christian world — St. George.
Paradoxically, however, George is also one of the most heavily fictionalized saints. Did he exist at all? Samantha Riches, in her book St. George; Hero, Martyr and Myth, writes that “there is no aspect of St. George’s life that is incontrovertible, whether his birthplace, profession, the year of his death or details of his tortures.” It is true that if we investigate all of the early documents purporting to tell the life of George, we find a mass of contradictory disparities. And again, As Riches writes, “The net result is that none of the competing camps are able to offer a truly convincing explanation of who St. George was, or indeed, if he actually existed at all.”
What we do know is that churches were dedicated to George early on, and that as a reputed martyr saint his veneration was very widespread, and the stories told of him and his miracles only multiplied in extravagance. Whether originally so or not, George came to be noted as a military saint, which is why he is customarily depicted in armor.
His most popular image, of course, is as the dragonslayer, as in this Novgorod icon from the 1400s:
George is commonly depicted in icons in these ways:
1. Standing without armor or weapons, as in the “Deisis” ranks of the iconostasis;
2. Standing with armor and weapons, as in his individual icons and with other saints;
3. As dragon slayer.
4. As rescuer of a boy captured by muslims (this type is often combined with the type of George as dragon slayer)
Here is an example of the first form, an iconostasis panel showing George robed but without armor or weapons. The image in this icon was uncovered after overlying paint layers were removed to reveal the earliest layer. Patches of the overlay may still be seen; note particularly the later patch at upper right, left on because it contains the saint’s name and title:
Here is an example of the second form, a simply-painted icon showing, at left, the three patron saints of marriage fidelity, Samon, Aviv, and Guriy; and at right George in his Roman armor with lance, the Prophetess Anna (the one from the meeting of Christ in the temple as an infant), and the nun Evdokia (Eudocia), as well as Jesus blessing from the clouds above:
Now we come to the very prevalent and widespread depiction of George as slayer of the dragon:
It is a very pleasantly stylized icon showing George striking with his lance at the fallen dragon, while in the “palaces” to the right the King and Queen look on, as does their rescued daughter Elisava, standing below. At upper left Christ blesses from the clouds, while an angel descends to place the crown of victory upon George’s head. This is the type in which George is usually given his standard title, Георгий Победоносец — Georgiy Pobedonosets — “George the Victory-bearer,” meaning George the Victorious.
It is the familiar old story of the dragon that had to be placated by being fed periodically, and of lots being cast to decide who to feed to the monster; the lot falls upon the daughter of the pagan king, but George the hero appears and subdues and wounds the dragon, which in the iconic version is then leashed and led by the rescued princess into the city. There George tells the populace that if they will convert to Christianity, he will slay the dragon, which upon their agreement he then does.
It is not hard to see that this is the same kind of thing we find in mythology and in fairy tales. We can recall the Greek story of Perseus saving the princess Andromeda from the sea monster as her parents looked on. And of course for prototypes of the warrior hero in Roman armor on horseback, striking with his lance at a dragon-like creature, we need look no farther than Egyptian depictions of the God Horus fighting the evil God Seth in crocodile form, as in this image from the 300s c.e.:
Many modern-day Eastern Orthodox tend to now see the “George and the Dragon” icon as a symbol of Good overcoming Evil, or of Christianity overcoming paganism, but of course before modern times Orthodox believers held to a quite literal interpretation in which a real hero George killed a real dragon and saved a real princess. And of course there are still conservative Eastern Orthodox who take the icon as history, just as they consider the world only a few thousand years old. In any case, the earliest textual version of the “George and the Dragon” story dates to the 1100s.
Let’s take a look at another example of this type:
We can see that things are moved around a bit, and small details change from example to example of this type, but the basic concept remains the same. However, what I want you to notice particularly in this example is the upraised right hand of George that holds the lance:
The observant student of icons will notice that in addition to holding the lance, the hand also shows the fingers in the position of blessing used by the Old Believers, and used by them as a sign of the “true belief” in opposition to that of the State Russian Orthodox Church, which adopted a different position for the fingers in the middle of the 1600s. So this little detail of the hand is telling us that the painter wanted everyone to know that this was an “Old Believer” icon. And in fact this is a good time to note that most of the “traditional” icons painted in the stylized manner that we find in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries were painted by or for Old Believers. The State Church, you will recall, had adopted the westernized and more realistic manner of painting icons, but the Old Believers stuck tenaciously to the stylized manner that is so popular among collectors and icon enthusiasts today.
Here is another example of “The Great Martyr George the Victory-bearer”:
This finely-painted example not only includes the usual elements of the “Dragon” type, but also adds four scenes at the base from the tale of the martyrdom of George.
As mentioned earlier, there is also a fourth type depicting George on a white horse, and a boy riding with him. This motif is found mostly in Greek iconography and in regions influenced by it, as well as in the Balkans. We can call it the “rescued boy” motif. Here is an 1833 example on a copper engraving from Mount Athos, which combines the “rescued boy” with the usual “dragon” scene.
It appears both as a separate type, and as we see in the engraving, as an added element in icons of George and the Dragon. George is depicted on a white horse, but with him is a boy. Some examples show the boy held under George’s arm, while others depict him sitting on the horse behind George. The boy commonly holds a cup or bowl in one hand and a narrow-necked jug with a spout in the other. Some examples also give him a long towel over one shoulder.
The large building at the base of the engraving is the Xenophontos Monastery at Mount Athos, which is dedicated to St. George (the Monastery is named after its founder, St. Xenophon).
This “rescued boy” story apparently dates back to the 11th century, In its early version, it relates that there was a handsome serving boy in the Monastery of St. George at Phatris in Paphlagonia, a region bordering the southern coast of the Black Sea. There was a raid by muslims, who captured the boy and took him away. Because of his good looks he was kept alive and put to work as a servant to the leader. Wanting to escape, the boy prayed to St. George, who came one night to rescue him, carrying him away on his horse. That same night George left the boy in a place where he fell asleep. When he awoke, he found that he was in the same Monastery of St. George from which he had been taken by the Arabs.
In a second version of the tale, the boy is named after St. George, and becomes a soldier in the Byzantine army at age 20. Then he goes to fight the Bulgarians and others invading from the North. George is captured by the Bulgarians, and put to work serving their king. When the eve of the commemoration of St. George arrives, the lad’s mother prays in a church to St. George for his release. St. George appears just as the lad is bringing a jug of hot water and a towel to the king. The saint takes the lad on his horse, and returns him to his distant family.
In a third version, the boy is living at Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, the son of a widow (unlike the second story, where he has both mother and father). He is carried off from church on the feast day of St. George by muslims from Crete, and set to serving the Emir. The boy’s mother, meanwhile, has prayed a year for his return. She is praying on the feast day of the saint when, at the same time far away, her son is just about to serve wine to the Emir. Suddenly St. George appears on a white horse and takes the boy back home to Mytilene.
So, having gone through all of this, was there really a St. George? We know there were early churches dedicated to him, and an inscription mentioning him among saints as early as 323 c.e., but we also know that the earliest account of his life is full of the usual hagiographical extravagant nonsense, and cannot be regarded as historical. There are various places claiming to have physical relics (meaning bones/body parts) of St. George, but there was a thriving historical trade in fake relics, so that means nothing.
All we can say, then, is that veneration of a saint called George who was considered a martyr existed by the 6th century. But when we look for any definite or conclusive information about details in the life of a real person, we find none, and so St. George remains, in the words of Samantha Riches, “enigma personified.”
My own view is that it hardly matters whether there ever was a real St. George, because no reliable information about him remains, just masses of extravagant, fabricated acts and miracles for this saint who was once “hugely popular” all the way from the Middle East to the British Isles and northern and southern Europe — and of course, throughout the Greek and Slavic realms.
George’s real importance in the lives of Slavic peasants was as the mythical hero “Yegoriy the Brave,” the militant protector of cattle from wolves and bears, associated not only with the wellbeing of horses but also with the greening of the grass after winter and the pasturing of the cattle. St. George became a kind of nature god, like the Prophet Elijah, whose chariot rolling across the heavens made the thunder. George was, in Russian peasant lore, the one who brought the spring.