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Will George lose his place as England's Patron Saint?

Church of England considers dropping St. George as too warlike.

St. George with sword

St. George by Raphael.
Click for larger picture.

Rev. Philip Chester, vicar of St Matthew's, Westminster, put forward the proposal to replace St. George as the patron saint of England with St. Alban. The idea must be taken up by the Church's parliament, the General Synod, before it can be realized. However it is only receiving cautious support from senior bishops at this time.

The clergy object to the warlike symbolism of St. George who is usually depicted in armor astride a warhorse wielding a sword or spear. The Reverend Chester charges that there is no proof that the saint, who is said to be a 4th century general martyred by Emperor Diocletian, ever even existed. "On the other hand," he said,"we are sure St. Alban is a real figure. What's more, he lived in this country." Alban was a noble Roman army officer who converted to Christianity after sheltering a Christian priest in his home. He switched clothing with the priest to protect him from the Roman persecution of Christians. Alban was apprehended and taken prisoner. He converted his captor and when he was beheaded the executioner was struck blind. Picture. He is the protomartyr or first martyr of England and was elevated to sainthood in 304 A.D.

St. George by van der Weyden

St. George by Rogier van
der Weyden. Click
for larger picture.

The story of St. George is much more heroic and filled with legendary imagery but highly unlikely. It begins with a dragon menacing the Syrian (or Libyan) city of Selena. The citizens offer the dragon two sheep a day if it will spare the village. The dragon accepts but eventually eats all the sheep. Then he demands a child (virgin) under the age of 15 each day. The king refuses to send the children and sends his best knights instead but the dragon kills them all. The citizens agree to send a child each day and they hold a daily lottery to choose the victim. The king's pride and joy is the princess, who is only 14, is as beautiful as she is virtuous. The king refuses to allow the citizens to put her name in the lottery but she sneaks her name in each day to make the lottery fair. Eventually her name is drawn and she bravely tells her father that she will face the dragon as all the other children have done. The king requests an eight-day stay to mourn his daughter and memorize her face. On the last day, ladies of the city prepare her to be sacrificed by braiding flowers into her hair and dressing her in white garments.

At dawn, a single knight arrives on horseback without retainers, men-at-arms, or grooms. "Leave now lest you die like all the others," the young princess pleads. "That I cannot do," says St. George, "for I am sworn to protect you to my death if need be, but the Lord God will uphold me." And with that he makes the sign of the cross and engages the dreaded dragon in battle. They fight all day until he finally lands a mortal blow directly to the beast's heart. Then, asking the maiden for her girdle, he binds it around the neck of the dying monster, and thereupon the princess leads it like a lamb. They return to the city, where St. George bids the people have no fear but only be baptized in the name of the Lord, after which he cuts off the dragon's head and the townsfolk are all converted. The king would have given George half his kingdom, but the saint replys that he must ride on, bidding the king meanwhile take good care of God's churches, honor the clergy, and have pity on the poor.

mosaic of St. George
Early 14 c. miniature mosaic
plaque of St. Geroge.
Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Click for larger picture.

The story of St. George and the dragon is just one of many miracles attributed to this legendary character. He is said to have been a Roman officer who for a time served in Caeleon and Glastonbury. An Anglo-Saxon version of the Acts of St. George circulated in England during the 11th century bears no mention of a dragon. It may have been allegorized from the name of the emperor tyrant Diocletian or Dadianus, who is sometimes called a dragon. The story may also be a Christianized version of the Greek legend of Perseus, who is said to have rescued the virgin Andromeda from a sea monster called a Kraken. St. George became the patron saint of the English soldiers after he was said to have appeared to the Crusader army at the Battle of Antioch in 1098. The story of the dragon entered his repertoire when the tale was published in a book called The Golden Legend by James of Voragine in 1265. From there his cult following began to grow until he was considered the greatest of all martyrs, a meglomartyr. In 1415 his feast day, April 23rd, was observed with as much celebration as Christmas!

St. George with banner

St. Geroge with his emblems.

The emblem of St. George is argent, a cross gules, which is to say a red cross on a white background. This symbol was adopted by the crusaders, and later by the English Navy. In fact, it is one of the elements of the Union Jack of England. It is very popular at English sporting events like the World Cup. The flag of St. Albans is azure a saltire or, meaning a yellow X on a blue background. This is very similar to the Scottish flag, so has drawn criticism from those who object to the confusion it will cause.

snarling dragon

Dragon in a painting by Raphael

Evolution of dragons

by Gael Stirler 
(November, 2006)

Although dragons are imaginary beasts they have appeared in the legends and myths of nearly every culture. In the West, prior to the 20th century, dragons were usually depicted as no larger than a horse. Though they had wings, they were rarely ever shown flying. Though they were said to exhale noxious fumes and smoke, they were rarely depicted breathing fire. Dragons were portrayed as evil, vile, disgusting creatures worthy of death. But all that was to change during the 20th century.

Pocket dragon

Pocket Dragon
by Real Musgrave

J.R.R. Tolkien's dragon Smaug in the the Hobbit, which was concieved during WWI, was a clever talking dragon but still an evil, greedy, killer. The dragons of Ann McCaffrey's land of Pern series were intelligent helpful flying mounts. Since then, dragons have become increasingly non-threatening, lovable, even childlike. They have become large and powerful or tiny and cute as in the case of Pocket Dragons® by Real Musgrave. They are also more like humans and horses in their expressions and musculature than the amphibian or snake-like depictions in Renaissance paintings.

What has caused this incredible change in our mythology of dragons? Since dragons are not real but allegorical depictions of something else, the obvious answer lies in a shift in what they represent. To the medieval mind a dragon represented the devil or all that was evil and must be resisted. They symbolized war, famine, pestilence, tyranny, and depravity. During the reformation, dragons were depicted in German art with obvious wanton feminine attributes for they were used to portray the temptation of extramarital sex that must be conquered. In the late 19th and early part of the 20th century, dragons became a symbol for the evil of industrialization. They horded wealth, turned people into slaves, polluted waterways and belched sulfurous vapors. In the middle of the 20th century everything flipped. The once feared dragon became a powerful ally that could be tamed and turned to the will of human handlers. What was the underlying change?

Fighter Plan in flight

P-40 Warhawk

The greatest event of the 20th century was World War II. The greatest change in warfare in the 20th century was the use of airpower. Immediately airplanes were compared to dragons and the nose cones of fighter planes were painted with eyes and teeth to reinforce this image. Young men returned from war and told inspiring tales of riding "flying dragons" and defeating enemies from the air. As we became accustomed to living with the atom bomb and utilizing the power of atomic energy, scary dragons gave way to helpful dragons. As we became more sensitive to the plight of endangered species in the 70s and 80s, dragons became the symbol of nearly extinct creatures everywhere that must be protected rather than slain. Thusthe symbol of humanity's greatest foe became the instrument of human survival in fantasy novels and role-playing games of the late 20th century. It is interesting to see how new technology is still affecting the evolution of dragon myths. In the last 20 years, advances in internet and telephone technology have made communication possible in ways never imagined before, so the newest novels about dragons are picking up on this by incorporating telepathic communication in the list of dragon powers.

It is my belief that the movement to replace St. George with St. Albans stems from the change in the underlying meaning of dragons. We are uncomfortable with a saint that hunts and kills endangered species. He appears to be destroying the symbol of ancient wisdom and nature. St. George, in his metal armor, looks more like a soulless robot unmoved by suffering than a gallant hero, making him a symbol for an uncaring, over-mechanized world. No wonder St. George is being re-evaluated. We now identify more with the dragon than the saint.


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