Saint George & the Dragon

Saint George Slaying the Dragon, Byzantine (Constantinople), early 14th Century, miniature mosaic icon

Although I’ve heard of Saint George and the Dragon (who hasn’t?) I didn’t really know anything about the legend itself or its origins, so I decided to find out and add a little info about it here.

I’m also intrigued by the various depictions of dragons in artworks of long ago and I love looking at old paintings so I’ve put together a very small collection of paintings of Saint George and the Dragon below. One thought that comes to mind, after looking at many of them (especially the one by Jost Haller which to me has the saddest dragon of all) is, “Poor Dragon!” 😦

Saint George (ca. 275/281 – 23 April 303) was, according to tradition, a Roman soldier from Syria Palaestina or Cappadocia (a historical region in modern Central Anatolia, Turkey) and a priest in the Guard of Diocletian, who is venerated as a Christian martyr. In hagiography Saint George is one of the most venerated saints in the Catholic (Western and Eastern Rites), Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and the Oriental Orthodox churches. He is immortalized in the tale of Saint George and the Dragon and is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. His memorial is celebrated on 23 April, and he is regarded as one of the most prominent military saints.

The episode of Saint George and the Dragon appended to the hagiography of Saint George was Eastern in origin, brought back with the Crusaders and retold with the courtly appurtenances belonging to the genre of Romance. The earliest known depictions of the motif are from tenth- or eleventh-century Cappadocia and eleventh-century Georgia; previously, in the iconography of Eastern Orthodoxy, George had been depicted as a soldier since at least the seventh century. The earliest known surviving narrative of the dragon episode is an eleventh-century Georgian text. Read more about Saint George here.

Salbuch (libel) of the monastery Naumburg (Wetterau) to Kaichen with pictures of Friedberg and St. George as patron saint of the castle. Illustrated manuscript, 5 Dezember 1514th Marburg State Archive documents Hanau, Monastery Naumburg, 1514 December 5th (from Wikimedia Commons)

In the fully developed Western version, which developed as part of the Golden Legend, a dragon or crocodile makes its nest at the spring that provides water for the city of “Silene” (perhaps modern Cyrene in Libya or the city of Lydda in the Holy Land, depending on the source). To appease the dragon, the people of Silene used to feed it two sheep every day, and when the sheep failed, they fed it their children, chosen by lottery. It happened that the lot fell on the king’s daughter, who is in some versions of the story called Sabra. The king, distraught with grief, told the people they could have all his gold and silver and half of his kingdom if his daughter were spared; the people refused. The daughter was sent out to the lake, decked out as a bride, to be fed to the dragon. Saint George by chance rode past the lake. The princess, trembling, sought to send him away, but George vowed to remain. The dragon reared out of the lake while they were conversing. Saint George fortified himself with the Sign of the Cross, charged it on horseback with his lance and gave it a grievous wound. Then he called to the princess to throw him her girdle, and he put it around the dragon’s neck. When she did so, the dragon followed the girl like a meek beast on a leash. She and Saint George led the dragon back to the city of Silene, where it terrified the people at its approach. But Saint George called out to them, saying that if they consented to become Christians and be baptised, he would slay the dragon before them. The king and the people of Silene converted to Christianity, George slew the dragon, and the body was carted out of the city on four ox-carts. “Fifteen thousand men baptized, without women and children.” On the site where the dragon died, the king built a church to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint George, and from its altar a spring arose whose waters cured all disease. Read more about the origins of the legend of Saint George and the Dragon here.

(Click images to enlarge)

St. George and the Dragon c. 1431 by Paolo Uccello (1397-1475)
(from Wikimedia Commons)
Saint George slaying the Dragon c. 1453 by Jost Haller (c.1410-before 1485)
(from Wikimedia Commons)
St. George and the Dragon c. 1458-1460 by Paolo Uccello (1397-1475)
(from Wikimedia Commons)
St. George and the Dragon c. 1470 by Paolo Uccello (1397-1475)
(from Wikimedia Commons)
Saint George slaying the Dragon c. 1470 by Carlo Crivelli
(from Wikimedia Commons)
Saint George slaying the Dragon c. 1490 by Carlo Crivelli
(from Wikimedia Commons)
St George and the Dragon, 1502 by Vittore Carpaccio (1466–1525)
(from Wikimedia Commons)
St George & the Dragon, 1516 (detail) by Vittore Carpaccio (1466-1525)
Saint George Struggling with the Dragon 1503-1505, by Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520) (from Wikimedia Commons)
Saint George slaying the Dragon 1506, by Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520)
(from Wikimedia Commons)
Saint George and the Dragon 1550 by Lelio Orsi (1511-1587)
(from Wikimedia Commons)
Saint George and the Dragon c. 1560 by Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594)
(from Wikimedia Commons)
St. George by Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) (from Wikimedia Commons)

There are many more images of statues and paintings of “Saint George and the Dragon” on Wikimedia Commons.