Last week in Los Angeles I visited the great Getty Museum. My attention was arrested by a 16th-century Italian oil on panel by Dosso Dossi. A man in armour with a subtle halo, Christ-like hair and beard, clutches a broken spear with his white-knuckled hand. Below and before him he holds the head of a lizard bird beast. Above, a faint rainbow emerges. The man’s face is a masterwork of conflicting forces: fatigue, triumph, sorrow, determination. It was one of the most interesting paintings of the martyr St George and the Dragon that I have ever seen.
This coming week brings St George’s feast, celebrated with solemnity as England’s patron. His blood-red cross is emblazoned across the Union Flag. George, as the tale goes, was one of those soldier saints who, when he refused to recant his Christian faith, was put to death, perhaps in AD 303, during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian. His cult was deep and widespread. He was numbered among the fourteen “Holy Helper Saints” and was invoked against the Black Death for the health of domestic animals. His skull is venerated in the Roman Minor Basilica of San Giorgio in Velabro, which once had Blessed John Henry Newman for a titular cardinal.
Speaking of dragons, the saint is most often depicted in the act of slaying one. There is little evidence of non-metaphorical dragons roaming about in the 4th century. Perhaps it was a journalist? Nevertheless, the image of St George, having captured our forebears’ minds and hearts, produced countless works of devotional art across many centuries.
The kernel of the story is in the Legenda Aurea or Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine (d 1298). Once upon a time, a venom-spewing dragon which demanded human sacrifice (as they do) plagued a town in Libya where George happened to be trotting. George declared that if they professed belief in Christ he would save the king’s daughter who had been led away as basilisk bait. Our saint speared the devilish critter, chopped off its head with his sword, saved the girl and, thence, a spring of disease-curing water sprang forth. The king subsequently built a church there in honour of the Blessed Virgin and the saintly dragon-slayer.
At some point, we all must face the dragon. Christians strive for victory in sorrow and great fatigue, battered but determined, even when our spears have shattered.
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