06 May 2010

'Most Honoured Cultivator of Piety'—St George the Trophybearer

Today, 23 April on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Great Martyr and Victorious Wonderworker, George the Trophybearer (†303). [1] Here is the account of his life in the Great Horologion:

George, this truly great and glorious Martyr of Christ, was born of a father from Cappadocia a nd a mother from Palestine. Being a military tribune, or chiliarch (that is, a commander of a thousand troops), he was illustrious in battle and highly honoured for his courage. When he learned that the Emperor Diocletain was preparing a persecution of the Christians, Saint George presented himself publicly before the Emperor and denounced him. When threats and promises could not move him from his steadfast confession, he was put to unheard-of tortures, which he endured with great bravery, overcoming them by his faith and love towards Christ. By the wondrous signs that tookplace in his contest, he guided many to the knowledge of the truth, including Queen Alexandra, wife of Diocletian, and was finally beheaded in 296 in Nicomedia.

His sacred remains were taken by his servant from Nicomedia to Palestine, to a town called Lydda, the homeland of his mother, and then were finally transferred to the church which was raised up in his name. (The translation of the Saint’s holy relics to the church in Lydda is commemorated on November 3; Saint Alexandra the Queen, on April 21.)

Through the centuries Saint George has shown himself to be a swift and present helper to all who call on him with faith, whether on land or sea, to the uttermost ends of the earth; yet so many miracles have been worked at his tomb in Lydda (the present-day Lod0, that when Palestine was in the hands of the Moslems, they took half of his church and turned it into a mosque, which may still be seen to this day, dedicated in his honour and testifying to the abundant power of his intercession. [2]

I posted extensively on St George last year, as can be seen if one clicks on the ‘St George’ label in the sidebar. At any rate, I will certainly not be able to devote so much attention to him this year, if only because I’ve already used most of my material. I have, however, come across two interesting books in the meantime, both of which examine the history of the cult of St George from a fairly secular, English perspective. Both also include extensive discussions of the story of St George’s slaying of the dragon (on which I have posted here and here). By far the shorter and simpler of the two, Giles Morgan’s St George: Knight, Martyr, Patron Saint & Dragonslayer is a helpful overview and an attractive little volume, but it lacks notes and illustrations. St George: Hero, Martyr & Myth by mediaeval and art historian Samantha Riches has better notes, copious illustrations, and is in general a fuller account. It is also a handsome, coffeetable-sized book. One of the many interesting things I’ve learned from these books is the foundation in 1871 by John Ruskin of the ‘Guild of St George’. Riches writes:

Perhaps the most interesting of the associations that have taken St George as their tutelary saint is the Guild of St George, founded by the aesthete, writer and political thinker John Ruskin in 1871 with the principal aim of furthering and assisting agricultural society in England. One of the first goals of the organisation was to purchase land for agriculture ‘which shall not be built upon but cultivated by Englishmen with their own hands’; another was to persuade member of the upper classes of English society that agriculture was an honourable occupation ‘consistent with high thoughts and noble pleasures’. The list of objectives of the Guild includes not only the acquisition and cultivation of land, and the building of farms and houses for agricultural labourers alongside the repair of buildings in impoverished rural areas, but also the offer of financial grants and the erection of educational establishments. Besides the teaching of agricultural skills, there was also an intention to create museums of art and natural history ‘for the cultivation of taste and intelligence among rural labourers and craftsmen’ . . . . The Ruskin Museum at Meersbrook Park in Sheffield formed a lasting monument to the ambition to edify, but at the outset this aspect of the Guild’s work was secondary: ‘there were to be the schools of St George, the Museums of St George, and always first and foundationally the land of St George’. The creed of beliefs of the companions, or members, of the Guild, included the following:

‘I will not kill or hurt any living creature needlessly, nor destroy any beautiful thing, but will strive to save and comfort all gentle life, and guard and perfect all natural beauty upon the earth.’ [3]

The sentiments expressed in this credo sum up a combination of interests—nature, art and chivalry—which were clearly important to Ruskin himself. It is likely that St George appealed to him as a figure of chivalry, although the choice of patron of the new organisation will almost certainly have been influenced by the saint’s links with agriculture, and perhaps also metalworking. Ruskin is known to have had a long-standing personal interest in the concept of chivalry. . . . He claimed that a specific painting of St George and the dragon (from a cycle of the dragon legend by Vittore Carpaccio, c. 1505-7, at the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice) represented a perfection of chivalry, reading into the image a moral lesson in the use of physical power for noble purposes. . . . In Fors Clavigera, the series of open letters which he wrote to the working classes of the British nation between 1871 and 1884, Ruskin made it clear that he considered St George to be the essence of a Christian gentleman. The letters dealt directly with the problems of capitalism: he planned that the Guild of St George should evolve into a utopian rural society where the land would be worked for the greater good, where English people could flourish far from the corrupting influence of city life. . . . [4]

Apart from my own posts, however, I would also refer the reader to the excellent posts produced by John Sanidopoulos around the time of the New Calendar feastday a couple of weeks ago. In one post (here), John has a number of videos featuring Greek folk songs about the Great Martyr, while in another (here) he reposts a collection of ancient references to the Saint, including the following inscription from the lintel of a St George church—formerly a pagan temple—dating to 515 at ‘Zorava in the late Roman province of Arabia’:

The abode of daimones has become the house of God. The light of salvation shines where darkness caused concealment. Where sacrifices to idols occurred, now there are choirs of angels. Where God was provoked, now He is propitiated. A certain Christ-loving man, the town-councillor John, son of Diomedes, offered a gift to God from his own property, a beautiful building, after installing within it the worthy body of the martyr George, who appeared to this John not in a dream, but manifestly. [5]

John also links (here) to Budge’s translation of ‘The Passion of St George’ by the blessed Abba Theodotus, 4th- & 5th-c. Bishop of Ancyra in Galatia (in full here). A note in the manuscript which introduces the Passion calls the Saint ‘the martyr of Diospolis of Palestine, the sun of the truth, the star of the morning, the mighty man of the Galileans from Melitene and the valiant soldier of Christ’. The Passion itself concludes with Abba Theodotus’s appraisal:

Behold now, O beloved brethren, we have told you these things of the great honours which God has vouchsafed to the valiant soldier of strength, the mighty athlete, Saint George, whose festival is celebrated this day throughout all earth and heaven, and of the remainder of his glory and of the mighty and exalted honour he holds in the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of Christ the King. And now O beloved, blessed of God, since we know of a truth that Saint George has drawn nigh to God in this manner and has obtained freedom to enter into the presence of the Holy Trinity at all times and to show favour to every one, let us make ourselves champions, through love, of our poor brethren and strangers; let us love one another, let us keep innocence, and it shall come to pass to all of us, O beloved, that Saint George will, through our Lord Jesus Christ, show favour to us, and have compassion upon us, and forgive us our sins, and bless the gathering together of our people, small and great, old men and young men, and widows and virgins.

I shall conclude with the Kontakion of the Saint, taken from the Great Horologion:

Kontakion. Fourth Tone
Thou Who wast raised up

Having been cultivated well by the Lord God, * as the most honoured cultivator of piety * thou has now gathered sheaves of virtues for thyself; * for, as thou didst sow with tears, * thou dost reap with rejoicing; * with thy blood didst thou contest * and thou now hast received Christ. * And by thine intercessions, O Saint George, * thou grantest all the forgiveness of trespasses. [6]

Addendum: I was just surprised to learn that there is a Guild of St George, inspired by Ruskin, that is still in existence. According to their website:

Today the Guild is a charitable Education Trust, which tries to put Ruskin's ideas into practice. Its purpose has never been to pursue specifically Ruskinian or antiquarian projects. It aims to work in the spirit of Ruskin's Company, but to pursue those values in contemporary ways. It works through a number of properties. It has an educational art collection, built up by Ruskin and supplemented since, in the Millennium Gallery, Sheffield. It owns some farmland and woodland in the Wyre Forest, near Bewdley, Worcestershire, which it manages in an environmentally friendly manner. It owns a number of houses in the Arts and Crafts style in the Hertfordshire village of Westmill; these are let at affordable rents and maintained as buildings of quality.
It also provides scholarships and awards across a variety of subjects close to Ruskin's heart. It recently funded the very successful national Campaign for Drawing, and it provided the finance for a nine-year cycle of Triennial Exhibitions in the Millennium Gallery, which have Ruskin at the heart of them but extend his concerns into the present century. It has also begun organising a series of open symposia on issues of current importance. These are designed to question the political truisms of our day, much as Ruskin questioned those of his. The Guild is also, at present, supporting work in the regeneration of old orchards and hay meadows in the Wyre Forest area, and it helped to build an architecturally striking study centre on its land, The Ruskin Studio.

[1] I take this date from David Hugh Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford U, 2004), p. 213.

[2] The Great Horologion, tr. Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Boston: HTM, 1997), pp. 465-6.

[3] One can read the full ‘creed’ in John D. Rosenberg, ed., The Genius of John Ruskin: Selections from His Writings (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), pp. 415-6.

[4] Samantha Riches, St George: Hero, Martyr & Myth (Thrupp, UK: Sutton, 2000), pp. 199-200. Giles Morgan mentions it briefly in St George: Knight, Martyr, Patron Saint & Dragonslayer (Edison, NJ: Chartwell, 2006), pp. 111-2.

[5] The source is given as F. Trombley, Hellenic Religion & Christianization c.370-529 II (Leiden, 1995), p. 363.

[6] Horologion, p. 466.

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