Catholic Art and Symbols

Saint George and the dragon: the legend

The legend of Saint George slaying a dragon and rescuing an innocent maiden from death comes from Middle Age.
St George’s Day is celebrated in England on 23 April, reputed to be the day of George’s martyrdom in 303.

In our imagination, George is the saint that kills the dragon.
As a symbol of evil and paganism, the dragon appears frequently in the stories about medieval saints: Theodore, Sylvester, Margaret and Martha (that however just tamed the monster) are just the most famous ones.
Nevertheless, none of them is as popular as St. George, chosen as patron saint of England, Portugal and many other countries.

The traditional iconography of George is based on his most famous miracle – the killing of the dragon –  as narrated in the Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine.
Selem is besieged by a horrible monster and, to keep it away from the Libyan town, the citizens drew lots to decide whom among the youngest in town to sacrifice to the monster. As the daughter of the king has to be sacrificed, St. George appears riding his horse and he manages to neutralise the dragon. He then invites the princess to rope the dragon, now domesticated, to lead it into the town: witnessing this prodigious event, the king and the whole population converted to Christianity and, at the end, the dragon is killed.

In the Western culture and the iconography of this saint the dragon becomes the characteristic feature of Saint George. What most people don’t know is that at the beginning of his cult there was no dragon in his stories.
The most ancient representation of St. George dates back to the 10th century and can be found in the church of the Holy Cross built on the isle of Akdamar: a bas-relief shows three saints riding and, among them, George can be identified, represented as he spears an anthropomorphous figure. The other two knights are St. Sergius killing a fierce animal and St. Theodore who definitely does fight against a dragon.
Actually at that time the dragon slaughter saint par excellence was Theodore of Amasea, a knight saint known from the 7th century for having defeated the monster. Until the 11th century in no story about St. George the killing of a dragon was ever mentioned: he was venerated simply as a soldier-martyr that converted infidel peoples.

In the meantime, around the image of St. George killing the dragon a whole story started to be developed: the first texts related to the episode date back to the 11th century and include already all elements that we know.

In a very very quick time the cult of St. George spread all over Europe as simultaneously did the representation of the knight killing the dragon – in England the first image of this kind dates back to the beginning of the 12th century. Whereas in the Eastern regions the monster looked more like a snake, its version brought by the Crusaders to the Western lands grew in dimensions and it acquired paws and wings, becoming the dragon we all know.

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