At some time in the third century, in the city of Lydda, Palestine, a man named George was executed for being a Christian. In the following century his cult flourished widely, the Christians of Lydda built a church in his honor, and a legend developed concerning his passion. In 495, Pope Gelasius I, while confirming the historicity of St. George, condemned the legend as apocryphal.1
THE 5TH-CENTURY LEGEND
As well he might. The tale ends with God answering George's prayer that he send down fire to destroy every pagan in Lydda. It also challenges credulity at every turn. In a long series of episodes the saint is repeatedly tortured, killed, and then resurrected by divine grace. At one point, the pagans even cut up his body and bury the pieces separately – to no avail, because God simply puts him back together and has him go through another trial.2
Despite Gelasius' decree, the legend was copied, translated, and revised in many versions around the Christian world. Most of the revisions omit the call for fire in the final prayer and leave only George's follow-up request that God grant pardon to those who invoke his name. The revisions also make some effort to make the tale a little more believable. The multiple resurrections, for example, go by the board.3
VORAGINE'S USE OF THE 5TH-CENTURY LEGEND
It is on these revisions that the Voragine drew for the second half of his chapter on St. George in the Golden Legend. In the Legend, George is a noble and wealthy Christian military officer from Cappadocia. When he learns that the prefect Dacian is persecuting the Christians in Lydda he goes there and declares his faith before the people. Dacian has a magician give George drugged wine in hopes of making him recant. But George makes the sign of the cross over the wine and suffers no harm. The magician is so impressed that he asks to be baptized.
Dacian then tries putting the saint on a spiked wheel, but it falls apart at once. Next he tries putting George in a cauldron of hot lead, but the saint again protects himself with the sign of the cross and feels no pain. He then tricks Dacian into letting him proceed to the temple "to offer sacrifice." What he really does when he gets there is pray that Heaven send a fire to consume the temple, its idols, and its priests. For this Dacian has him flogged, but his constancy under torture inspires the queen to convert to Christianity. Finally the saint is beheaded.
THE DRAGON STORY
The still famous story of St. George and the dragon came to Europe with Crusaders returning from Syria in the 12th century. It was not widely circulated until Voragine retold it as the first half of his life of the saint in 1260.4
As Voragine tells it, the dragon used to rise up from a lake near the city of Silena, go up to the city walls, and poison everyone with its breath. To appease it people first brought it sheep, then their own children, who were chosen by lot. On a day when the king's daughter was sent out to be devoured, George came by, learned of the problem, fortified himself with the sign of the cross, and dispatched the monster with a sword. Amazed, the king and townspeople became Christians that very day.
THE RED CROSS
The Sign of the Cross is a constant both in older versions such as the South English Legendary and in the dragon episode. The Cross is also important in a 9th- or 10th-century polyptych published in Weitzmann (Icon, 56), where the spears held by Saints Theodore and George are topped with large "hand crosses" of the kind the two saints also hold in another 6th-century icon (ibid. 43). In a painting of the saint's entry into Heaven, he is welcomed by Helena, the saint who discovered the True Cross. Most importantly, Voragine reports a story in which the Crusaders at the walls of Jerusalem had a vision of St. George "wearing white armor marked with the red cross." He encouraged them to scale the walls with him and take the city, which they did.
A 1325 manuscript illumination of the dragon episode puts the red cross on a white shield, and a fresco in Padua from the 1380s has Dacian's torture wheel destroyed by angels bearing the device on both their breastplates and their shields. Subsequent images often dispense with the red cross, but it continues to this day as a recognized symbol of the saint.
IMAGES AFTER VORAGINE
Thus the Golden Legend put together everything that artists needed for the enormous number of St. George portraits and narrative images in succeeding centuries: the dragon story, the red cross, the wheel and other tortures, the conversions in Silena and Lydda, and the beheading. The 1325 illumination, for example, presents the dragon story in all of Voragine's details – the lake, the dragon, the princess, the people at and on the city walls, and George himself on a white steed rampant, his grand cape flying in the wind.
The only item from the Golden Legend that most artists ignore is George killing the dragon with a sword. The spear is almost always preferred. It has been in St. George's iconography since at least the 10th century, and it does make for a more elegant composition.
Voragine's statement that George was rich, noble, and an officer was a boon to artists doing portraits in the later middle ages. They could exhibit their skills in portraying a soldier in elaborately decorated armor and fabrics, as in the image at right.
In the 15th century, St. George was included among the "14 Holy Helpers," saints to whom the faithful were encouraged to pray for succor. The passions of many of these saints end with their asking God to grant special protection to those who pray in their name. This had been the case in the St. George stories for a thousand years, so he was an obvious choice.
Prepared in 2013 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2017-04-14.
1 Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "St. George." Delehaye (70) agrees with Gelasius that despite the fabulous character of the legend there can be little doubt about the historicity of the saint. He does not consider it certain that the 5th-century legend that we have is the same one Gelasius condemned (69).