The Feast Day of St. George was last Monday, April 23. In past blogs, I have written about the symbolism of his icon, and of one of the many legends about him. In this heroic story, he slew a dragon in defense of virtue, defeating his own fears and demons, receiving courage and strength from the Grace of God. But was he himself real, or only a legend?
Since those posts, I have researched more about him, reading blogs and articles. (Unfortunately, having originally done this out of personal interest without any thought at the time of writing more about him, I didn’t record the particulars and thus cannot cite sources. I apologize deeply to all whose wisdom and study I have mulled over and distilled without giving credit.)
I find that there is historical evidence that he existed. His story remains compelling and relevant today.
It is said that he died April 23, 303 AD. Icons of him depict a young man with a full head of curly brown hair, dressed as an officer of the Roman army. He lived at the time of the Emperor Diocletian. This was the time of some of the most violent persecutions of Christians. Diocletian ordered that every person, beginning with his own troops, pay homage to the Roman gods, on penalty of death.
George refused to deny Christ and is said to have openly defied the emperor and refused directly to his face to worship the Roman idols. He was immediately sent to be tortured and killed for his faith. He died at Lydda, in Palestine. The earliest written mention of his life is in fragments of a 5th century manuscript. Soon, there were literally hundreds of churches in Syria, Palestine, and throughout the Middle East, dedicated to his name and example of faith. There were established pilgrimages to venerate his remains, recorded in narratives by early historians. Icons were written so that all Christians could honor his image and memory (the example above from Kiev, circa 1050 AD). Early images show him simply as a soldier, transfigured by grace. After the 12th century, the legend of St. George and the Dragon became a popular metaphor of faith and struggle, and the icon of the saint mounted on a horse and battling a dragon became widely known.
Thus, the cult of St. George is widespread and ancient. He is the patron saint of England, Russia, Aragon, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Greece, historical Palestine, and Portugal. He even has a country named after him: Georgia. He is venerated in Egypt, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, India, Iraq, Lithuania and Ukraine.
Think about St. George not only as a symbolic figure in an artistic image, but as a real person:
a man at the height of his strength, vigor, and career, who faced a choice between standing by his principles and beliefs, or “going along to get along”. He didn’t take the easy route: going through the motions, pretending to support popular notions and cultural expectations. This sounds so familiar today.
George stood firm in his own convictions and was a courageous witness to truth. No doubt he wrestled with his options, consulted– and argued with– family and friends, and went through many an anguished, sleepless night. Finally, he stood bravely before the authorities and proclaimed his faith, accepting the inevitable consequences.
His 1,700 year-old example of courage and integrity is as relevant today as it was then.