Vittore Carpaccio Tempera on Panel 1502
Traditionally, the people of England celebrate St. George’s Day on April 23 to commemorate his martyrdom on this date in 303 AD. Like most saints, it’s very difficult to separate historical fact from myth. St. George’s story swirls with contradictions and mystery. I won’t even bother to try to get to the bottom of it, I’ll just hit some highlights.
St. George was a Roman soldier in the time of Emperor Diocletian in the late 200s CE. His father had been a Roman army official in what is modern day Turkey. His mother was from Palestine. They were both Christians and raised George in their faith.
Possibly because the emperor knew his father, George rose quickly through the ranks and was part of the Imperial guard by his mid 20s. On February 24, 303 CE Diocletian issued an edict essentially demanding the conversion of all of his army. Each soldier was to offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods. Not only did George very publicly refuse, he declared he was a Christian. Although offered riches and land, he held to his beliefs.
He knew his execution was imminent, so he gave his money and possessions to the poor. He suffered through torture, although the stories of his torture vary widely. Most stories say he died on three separate occasions and was brought back to life. Eventually, he was decapitated to finish him off.
There are many, many stories and myths surrounding the slaying of the dragon. Most involve some sort of damsel in distress. There is one version that I like best. It says that Diocletian’s wife, Empress Alexandra, witnessed George’s torture and suffering. She was so moved by his resolve that she too converted to Christianity. She is the damsel present in the story.
The dragon is the representation of Diocletian himself. George “slayed” Diocletian not by killing him, but by standing by his faith. By doing so, his death brings Empress Alexandra to the light, freeing her from her unchristian life and missing out on eternal afterlife.
It’s said his story was brought back to England by the Crusaders. The story also spread to the Eastern Roman Empire and eventually to Georgia, where he is also the patron saint. No, the country was not named for him, but they don’t really mind if you think that. There are numerous stories of St. George protecting armies and heartening soldiers.
Vittore Carpaccio was a Venetian artist in the late 15th, early 16th centuries. He was one of the early masters of the Venetian Renaissance and studied under Bellini. His style evolved into what is considered “orientalist,” which is the category in which St. George and the Dragon falls, generally meaning he used a Middle Eastern setting with more accurate architecture and details.
Like many versions of the St. George story, this painting is set in Beirut. The buildings in the background are obviously designed to represent Lebanon. The landscape is sand with little vegetation. It is slightly annoying to me that St. George is blonde as his father was Turkish and his mother was Palestinian, but I guess you can’t have everything.
In the far right you see the woman, Empress Alexandra in my mind. She’s in prayer to be saved. St. George is on his stallion slaying the dragon with his lance. And scattered on the ground are body parts and skulls, representatives of the victims of the beast.
Regardless of how you view the St. George story, I encourage you to take a close look at this wonderfully macabre painting. I also encourage you to read some of the many, many versions of his story. Happy St. George’s Day!