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Saint George

For alternate uses, see Saint George (disambiguation)

Saint George (c. 275/ 280 - April 23, 303), soldier of the Roman Empire and later Christian martyr.

St. George and the Dragon,
late 19th century engraving.

The traditional account of his life is considered to have originated in the 5th century. According to it, George was born to a Christian family during the late 3rd century. His father was from Cappadocia and served as an officer of the army. His mother was from Lydda, Palestine. She returned to her native city as a widow along with her young son. She reportedly provided her son with a respectable education.

Saint George is a patron Saint of Georgia.

The youth apparently followed the example of his father in joining the army soon after his coming of age. He reportedly proved to be a charismatic soldier and consequently rose quickly through the military ranks of the time. By his late twenties he reportedly had gained the titles of tribunus (tribune) and comes (count). By that time, George had been reportedly positioned in Nicomedia as a member of the personal guard attached to Roman Emperor Diocletian (reign 284 - 305).

In 303, Diocletian issued an edict authorizing the systematic persecution of Christians across the Empire. His caesar Galerius was reportedly responsible for this decision and would continue the persecution during his own reign (305 - 311). George was reportedly ordered to take part in the prosecution but instead confessed to being a Christian himself and criticized the imperial decision. An enraged Diocletian proceeded in ordering the torture of this apparent traitor and his execution. George was reportedly executed by decapitation in front of Nicomedia's defensive wall on April 23, 303. His body was then returned to Lydda for burial. Christians soon came to honor George as a martyr.

The validity of the above account is considered to be questionable at best. However his worship as a martyr is considered to have started relatively early. A temple in his honor was reportedly built in Lydda during the reign of Constantine I of the Roman Empire (reigned 306 - 337, sole emperor since 324).This temple was destroyed in 1010 but was later rebuilt by the Crusaders. In 1191 and during the conflict known as the Third Crusade (1189 - 1192), the temple was again destroyed by the forces of Saladin, Sultan of the Ayyubid dynasty (reigned 1171 - 1193). A new temple was erected in 1872 and is still standing.

During the 4th century the worship of George seems to have spread from Palestine to the rest of the Eastern Roman Empire. The 5th century would see his fame reach the Western part of the empire as well. In 494, George was canonized as a saint by Pope Gelasius I (term 492 - 496). However Gelasius included George among those "...whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God." This statement would not prevent the creation of several differing accounts about his life. Several of them filled with miracles. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the earliest text preserving fragments of George's highly miraculous narrative is in Acta Sanctorum identified by Fr. Delehaye of the scholarly Bollandists to be a palimpsest of the 5th century, 'full beyond belief of extravagances and of quite incredible marvels'.

This practice would continue for centuries. In the iconography of Eastern Orthodoxy George has been depicted as a soldier since at least the 7th century. Since the 9th century another popular depiction surfaced: George on horseback as the apparent slayer of a European dragon. This depiction was based on a popular legend of Christian mythology with George as its central figure: 'George and the Dragon'.

It should be noted that the tale found its place in the folk religion of several regions of Europe and Asia Minor so accounts may vary based on local tradition. The tale begins with a dragon making its nest at the spring which provides a city-state with water. Consequently, the citizens had to temporarily remove the dragon from its nest in order to collect water. To do so, they offered the dragon a daily human sacrifice. The victim of the day was chosen by drawing lots. Eventually the "victor" of this lottery happened to be the local princess. The local Monarch is occasionally depicted begging for her life with no result. She is offered to the dragon but at this point a traveling George arrives. He faces the dragon, slays it and saves the princess. The grateful citizens then abandon their ancestral Paganism and convert to Christianity.

The account used to be considered factual but this belief has been progressively abandoned. On the other hand few doubt it contains religious symbolism but various interpretations have been suggested. George can be seen as representing Christianity. In that case the dragon probably represents paganism, idolatry and/or the Devil.

However historians consider the roots of the story to be older than Christianity itself. It has been noted that the origin of the saint is said to be partly from Cappadocia in Asia Minor. And that Asia Minor was among the earliest regions to adopt the popular worship of the saint. But the region had long worshiped other religious figures. It is likely that certain elements of their ancient worship could have passed to their Christian successors. Notable among these ancient deities was Sabazios, the Sky Father of the Phrygians and known as Sabazius to the Romans. This god was traditionally depicted riding on horseback. The iconic image of St. George on horseback trampling the serpent-dragon beneath him is considered to be undeniably similar to these pre-Christian representations of Sabazios. So it has been suggested that St. George has served as a christianized version of the older deity.

On the other hand, the tale of George and the Dragon is widely considered to share a common theme with the ancient myth of Princess Andromeda of Ethiopia and her savior and later husband Perseus, slayer of the gorgon Medusa and later founder of Mycenae. Perseus beheaded Medusa and George his Dragon in a shared theme of decapitation. Perseus' meeting with Andromeda was placed in her native Ethiopia. In several versions, George meets his Dragon in Libya (North Africa west of Egypt). Both locals can be interpreted to represent distant cthonic kingdoms of magic. The saving of the king's daughter is another shared theme as is the reward-bargain exacted by the respective hero of the stories: Possession of the princess for Perseus and the mass baptism of the king's subjects for George.

In any case it was through this legend that George would reach his greatest popularity. During the early 2nd millennium and long after his death, George came to be seen as the original 'knight in shining armour' (and still on horseback). In other words an idealized model of Chivalry. And it was also during this time that George would come to be depicted in works of literature (mostly medieval romances).

Jacobus de Voragine (c. 1230 - died July 13, 1298), Archbishop of Genoa authored Legenda Sanctorum (Holy Legend) , a collection of legends concerning saints. The book came to be known as Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend) as a result of its worth in the eyes of 13th century readers. Its 177 chapters (182 in other editions) are considered today unreliable as historical sources but significant as literary works. The story of Saint George was prominent among them. This early written account is considered to have influenced later depictions of the saint in Westen European literature and art.

King Edward III of England (reigned 1327 - 1377) was known for promoting the codes of knighthood and in 1348 founded the Order of the Garter. During his reign, George came to be recognized as the patron saint of England. In the Iberian, George also came to be considered as patron to the regions of Catalonia (Catalan: Sant Jordi) and Portugal (Portuguese language:São Jorge) during their struggles against Castile. Their previous patron Saint James the Great was considered more strongly connected to Castile. Already connected in accepting George as their patron saint, in 1386 England and Portugal agreed to an Anglo-Portuguese Alliance. Today this treaty between the United Kingdom and Portugal is still in force.

The popular saint would also come to be honored as patron to a number of other countries, cities and causes. The latter vary from archers and Boy Scouts to skin diseases and herpes.

In 1969, Saint George was dropped from the Roman Catholic calendar, and his commemoration reduced to a purely local observance. He is however still honored as a saint of major importance by the Eastern Orthodoxy. His feast date, April 23, remains the second most important National Feast in Catalonia. It is traditional in that autonomous community to give a rose and a book to the loved one. This has led UNESCO to declare April 23 as the International Day of the Book.

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