Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s Saint George’s Day. Most of you might know him as the patron saint of England, or as the proverbial dragon slayer par excellence, but there are some aspects of this saint that might still surprise you. To celebrate, then, I thought I’d bring you five fun facts about this most iconic of saints:
1. He died three times. Yes, that’s right! According to his earliest passion narrative (which has largely come to us in Ethiopian manuscripts) St George was martyred two times and ressurrected before he died for the final time. It is perhaps because of these and other fanciful details that his story was dismissed as largely fictitious even before the Middle Ages began, although his status as a saint was never in doubt.
2. His sanctuary appears on one of the earliest Christian maps. This is the ‘Madaba Map,’ a mosaic depicting many Christian sites in the Holy Land, including Jerusalem. St George’s sanctuary, at Lydda, was one of the religious landmarks of medieval Palestine often visited by Christian pilgrims.
3. He fought in the First Crusade. According to the anonymous account of one of the Crusaders, St George appeared alongside St Demetrius and St Mercurius to defend Antioch. These saints brought with them a host of martyrs on white horses, who helped decide the battle in the Crusaders’ favour. The account is problematic for historians today, who are usually uncomfortable with mass miracles, but its a stirling example of the Christian warrior-saint archetype in action.
4. He is recognised as a saint in Islam. In Asia Minor and the eastern Mediterranean, where the cult of St George began, incoming Turks often adopted local Christian custom, including the veneration of certain saints. George, a holy warrior, made an easy cross-over to Islam, and illustrates the intense cultural exchange between Christianity and Islam in this period in Anatolia.
5. He didn’t kill a dragon. I know, I know, this takes all the fun out of St George, but there is no indication in the first centuries of St George’s cult that he was known as a dragon-slayer. Instead, he was simply a Roman soldier who refused pagan forms of worship and suffered martyrdom. Because of this, he often appears on horseback with a lance, but with no dragon.