This very well-painted icon depicts one of the miracles traditionally attributed to St. Nikolai/Nicholas of Myra:
The title inscription at the base identifies it:
S[V]YATUIY NIKOLAE CHUDOTVORETZ IZBABI AGRIKOVA SUINA OT SARATSUIN’
“HOLY NICHOLAS [the] WONDERWORKER SAVES AGRIK’S SON FROM [the] SARACENS”
The story relates that in the region of Antioch there lived a pious man named Agrik/Agkrikos. Every year on the day of commemoration of St. Nicholas, he would go to the church consecrated to St. Nicholas and pray, then return to his home and have a big dinner for his friends, relatives, and beggars.
It happened that one year, when the day to honor Nicholas came, he told his son Vasiliy/Basileios/Basil — who was aged 16 — to go to the church and pray to Nicholas and attend the liturgical services, while the father stayed home to prepare for the customary dinner.
While the son was at Matins at the church, it was attacked by Saracens, who captured the son and took him to the island of Crete. There, because he was an extremely beautiful lad, he was made the cupbearer of the Muslim Prince.
The parents were grief-stricken, so sorrowful with weeping that they neither attended church nor commemorated Nicholas for two years. Even into the third year they kept this up, until finally in the third year, on the day before St. Nicholas was to be commemorated, the father said to his wife that it was no use to weep; they should go to the church with oil and candles and pray to St. Nicholas for their son. So again they attended on St. Nicholas Day, prayed fervently to Nicholas, and came home to have the customary guests for the special annual dinner.
While everyone was seated at the meal, the dogs in the yard began to bark loudly. Agrik sent his servants out to see what was happening. When they returned, they said they saw no one, and nothing at all. But the barking not only continued, but got worse, so Agrik himself went to investigate. He was surprised to see a handsome young man in saracen clothes standing outside, holding a container of wine in his hands. Agrik, walking toward him, recognized his own son. The puzzled boy told him he did not know what had happened. He had just been pouring wine into the cup of the Muslim Prince on Crete, when suddenly the lad felt someone grab his hand, and he was carried off by St. Nicholas as though in a whirlwind, and then found himself outside his own home.
Now if you are a regular reader here, you will know it is not unusual in Eastern Orthodox hagiography for stories or parts of stories to be recycled from saint to saint. So perhaps you immediately recognized that the tale of the boy carried off to become a cupbearer, and saved and brought home by a Saint, is essentially the very same “rescued boy” motif that we find in the hagiography of St. George. You will find it in this previous posting: https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2014/07/20/st-george-the-enigmatic/
And here, again, is the iconographic image of the boy being rescued by St. George, with the wine pitcher still in his hand.
We can look back even farther for the more ancient origin of this tale. In Book 20 of Homer’s Iliad, we find these lines (233-235):
“And from Tros again three matchless sons were born, Ilus, and Assaracus, and godlike Ganymedes, who was born the most beautiful of mortal men; wherefore the gods caught him up on high to be cupbearer to Zeus by reason of his beauty, that he might live with the immortals.”
Yes, the abduction, in ancient Greek mythology, of the youth Ganymede, who because of his great beauty was made cupbearer to Zeus.
Here is a closer look at the father (and mother) seeing their son standing outside with St. Nicholas:
Here are the dinner guests, and a barking dog out in the yard:
By now, if you have been reading here regularly, you know that the saints whose supposed images are painted in icons and whose names fill the calendar of commemoration of the Eastern Orthodox Church are often either completely fictional or else heavily fictionalized,
Take the “Great Martyr” Demetrios of Thessaloniki, often written Demetrius of Thessalonica. Supposedly a martyr of the early 4th century, he is the second most famous of the warrior saints, after St. George. And yet there is no solid evidence that he ever existed. There are varying explanations of the origin of a St. Demetrius, from a confusion with a deacon martyr of Sirmium by the same name to confusion with another martyr with the similar name Emeterius. It is an interesting subject for students of hagiography.
Knowing that, it s nonetheless an obvious fact that there are huge numbers of icons of the supposed St. Demetrios, called Dmitriy in Russia.
Let’s take a look at a Russian icon of Dmitriy:
The Great Martyr George, as we have seen, is depicted in a similar manner, riding on a horse and thrusting with his lance at the dragon beneath him. Icons of Dmitriy also depict him riding a horse and thrusting his lance at an enemy beneath him, but in this case the enemy is not a dragon, but rather a figure sometimes vaguely called the “King of the Infidels,” a symbol of the invaders who threatened the city of Thessaloniki (Salonika), which was considered to be under the saint’s protection and has a church dedicated to him. In Slavic countries, the fallen King is identified as a Bulgarian Voevod called Kaloyan, supposedly defeated by Dmitriy, but history says he was actually assassinated by another Voevod named Manastras.
A second similarity with George is that in some icons, particularly in the Greek and Balkan regions, Dmitriy/Demetrios also rides a horse with another, smaller figure sitting on it behind him. But it is not a boy as in icons of George. In icons of Demetrios, it is the bishop Cyprian, who again like the boy was forced to serve his Slav captor, and was rescued by Demetrios.
A third similarity is that in some icons of George and the Dragon, an angel descends to place a crown of victory on George’s head; the same may be seen in some icons of Demetrios, such as this one:
It is interesting to see George/Georgios and Demetrios side by side, each with his distinguishing iconographic elements:
Here is a closer view of George, with his dragon and princess, and the serving boy in the “back seat”:
…and here is Demetrios, with his “King of the Infidels” and his “back seat” rider, Bishop Cyprian:
Here is a Russian icon depicting the martyrdom of Dmitriy:
You will often see Dmitriy called Мироточца (mirotochtsa) in Russia, or Μυροβλυτης (myrovlytes) in Greek-speaking regions. Both mean essential the same, “Myrrh-flowing,” which comes from the tradition that the relics of Dmitriy were said to ooze a fragrant oil called “myrrh” in Eastern Orthodoxy. It is not the same as the resin properly called myrrh.
Dmitriy/Demetrios is sometimes depicted in Roman armor, sitting on a throne, with a sword in his hand. He is also often seen standing, clothed in the same manner.
I have talked before about how, in Russia before the Revolution, icons that had a reputation for particular sanctity (usually Marian icons) were treated like aristocratic persons. On special occasions such an icon would be taken from place to place in a carriage, like a great lady. One day a young Russian boy — Maxim Gorkiy — encountered such an icon of Mary. Here is how he told it in his autobiography:
On the Saturday after Easter they brought to town, from the Oranskiy Monastery, the wonderworking icon of the Vladimir Mother of God. She was the guest of the town for half of June, and visited all the houses and apartments of everyone who came to church. She appeared at my employers’ house on a weekday morning. I was cleaning the copper utensils in the kitchen when the young mistress cried out in a scared voice from her room:
“Open the front door. They are bringing the Oranskaya icon!”
I rushed down, dirty, and with hands greasy with lard and powdered brick opened the door. A young monk with a lamp in one hand and a censer in the other softly grumbled: “Are you snoozing? Help us!”
Two of the inhabitants carried the heavy kiot [icon case/frame] up the narrow staircase. I helped them, supporting the edge of the kiot with my dirty hands and shoulder. The monk stomped up behind me, chanting unwillingly with his deep voice :
“Most Holy Mother of God, pray to God for u-us !”
I thought, with regretful certainty: “She is angry with me because I have carried her while dirty, and she will wither my hands.“
They placed the icon in the corner of the front room on two chairs covered with a clean sheet. On the sides of the kiot, holding it, stood two monks, young and beautiful like angels, bright-eyed, cheerful, with splendid hair.
They celebrated a moleben [prayer service]:
“O, All-hymned Mother…” the big priest gave out in a high voice, all the while feeling the swollen purple lobe of his ear, hidden in his reddish hair.
“Most Holy Mother of God, have mercy on u-us!” the monks sang wearily.
I loved the Mother of God. In Grandmother’s stories it was she who sowed on the earth, for the consolation of the poor people, all the flowers, all joys, every blessing and beauty. And, when the time came to venerate her, without noticing how the adults did it, I kissed the icon tenderly on the face — on the lips. Someone with powerful hands threw me into a corner by the door.
I don’t remember seeing how the monks left, carrying the icon, but I remember well how my employers sat around me on the floor and argued with much fear and anxiety about what was going to happen to me now.
“We shall have to speak to the priest, who will teach him,” said the master, who scolded me without malice.
“Ignoramus! How could you not know you shouldn’t kiss the lips? And anyway, you must have been taught that at school.”
For a few days I waited, resigned. What would happen? I had touched the kiot with dirty hands; I had venerated it unlawfully; I should not be allowed to go free and unpunished.
But apparently the Mother of God forgave my involuntary sin, which had been prompted by sincere love, or else her punishment was so light that I did not notice it among the frequent punishments given me by these good people.
Sometimes, to annoy the old mistress, I said regretfully : “But the Holy Virgin has apparently forgotten to punish me.”
“Oh, you wait,” answered the old woman spitefully — “We shall see.”
That is an odd cultural thing about icons. We in the West might think it a charming gesture for the boy to kiss the lips of the Marian icon, but in Russia that was not done. Such familiarity was considered highly disrespectful. Mary was not to be treated as a dear family member, but rather as an aristocrat.
There were, in fact, particular rules of etiquette governing the veneration of icons by kissing. Kissing an icon was a very common and omnipresent habit in Old Russia, but it had to be done just so.
For example, as we have seen, an icon was never to be kissed on the face. One could kiss the feet of the image, if it were a full-length icon, or one could kiss the hands. If one hand was raised in blessing, one usually kissed the blessing hand. If the icon did not depict the hands or feet, one could kiss the garment of the person depicted, or one could kiss the hair. In the case of an icon such as the “Not Made by Hands” image of Jesus, one could kiss the “towel” background on which the face was painted.
Foreigners visiting Russia were generally struck by the Russians perpetually crossing themselves before icons, by the bowing before the images and the kissing of them. The believers — particularly peasants — did not always discriminate between saints and images of the Tsar that hung in public places, so it was not an uncommon sight to see a peasant cross himself before the framed portrait of the Tsar hanging in a railway station.
The Oranskaya image Gorkiy spoke of (see photo at top) is a copy of the Vladimir icon of Mary, and is said to have “appeared” in 1634. A fellow named Pyotr Gladkov had a copy of the Vladimir icon painted and had a church built to house it. It gained a reputation as a supposedly “wonderworking” icon.
Here is another famous Marian type:
It is known as Znamenie, the “Sign” icon. It is one of the older types, and it has an interesting story linking it to the city of Novogorod that I will not go into now. Suffice it to say that because of its fame as a supposed “wonderworking” image, countless copies of it were made. The painter of this particular example helpfully added an inscription at the bottom that reads:
“A True Representation, Likeness and Measure of the Wonderworking Image of the ‘Sign’ Most Holy Mother of God Which is in Great Novgorod; painted in the year 1809.”
Let’s take a closer look at one of the border saints in this version:
The title inscription on the saint reads:
S[vatuiy] VE[liko] MU[chenik} GEORGIY — “The Holy Great Martyr George.” This is the same fellow as in icons of St. George and the dragon. He was a very popular saint in Russia and throughout the Eastern Orthodox world (as well as in the Catholic West). He holds a cross in his right hand to signify that he is a martyr. Did you notice that the “l” in Veliko and the “ch” in Muchenik are written as “superscript” letters, that is, written small and above the words into which they fit?
The other saints depicted in the border are the Great Marty Yakov (James) the Persian; the Venerable Makariy the Roman of Novgorod, who was an ascetic hermit said to be clairvoyant (shown here quite naked, though with his almost ankle-length beard strategically placed); and the ascetic Onufriy (Onuphrios) the Great, one of the “Desert Fathers” of Egypt. He is wearing what I call his “leaf shorts.” He is traditionally depicted with leaves covering his nakedness.
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.