Russia Religion Subjects Orthodox Saint St George and the Dragon

St George and the Dragon

St George of Cappadocia was a soldier of high birth who was put to death at Nicomedia near Constantinople on 23 April 303. According to the apocryphal Acts of St George, he held the rank of tribune in the Roman army and was beheaded during the reign of Diocletian for objecting to the emperor’s persecution of the Christians. St George was instantly venerated as a brave warrior and fearless defender of the poor, the weak and the Christian faith.

Widely worshipped throughout Palestine, Asia Minor, the Balkans and Europe from the fifth century, St George was also the patron saint of the Byzantine emperors. As a result, hagiographic icons of St George were popular in Byzantine art. When Russia adopted Christianity in 988, the worship of St George spread to Kiev, where he was revered by both the ruling classes and the common people.

Churches of St George were built across Russia, while icons of the saint were also painted. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, images of St George tended to be majestic and monumental. In the fourteenth century, Russian icon-painters began to paint hagiographic works chronicling events from the life of the saint.

The most famous episode from the life of St George is the slaying of the dragon. The saint once visited a city named Selem, where a dragon lived. The monster had to be fed daily with one of the citizens, drawn by lot. The day George arrived, the lot had fallen to the king’s daughter. Resolved that she should not die, the saint went out and killed the dragon. The princess was saved and the people of Selem converted to Christianity.

In folk art, St George was the patron saint of agriculture and animal husbandry. Believed to protect cattle from diseases, he ranked alongside such other popular national patrons as St Nicholas of Myra and St Florus and St Laurus. Besides St George’s Day (Yuriev den’) on 23 April, Russia also celebrated the autumn festival of St George on 26 November.

Symbolising the victory of good over evil, the motif of St George defeating the dragon was one of the most popular subjects in Old Russian art. In the seventeenth century, the image became the official emblem of Muscovy. It was later incorporated into the imperial coat of arms.

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