St. George, The Holy Knight

Raffaello, St. George and the dragon (1505)
© National Gallery of Art – Washington

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

There is a figure that more than any other influenced the equestrian imagination: that of St. George, the Holy Knight, who over the centuries became the symbol of chivalrous valor that defeats evil. A curious fact when you consider that, although uncertain and contradictory, the small amount of information that traces his life and his martyrdom between the Third and Fourth centuries, does not mention his exploits on horseback, nor specifically characterizes him as a knight. The legend of his fight with the dragon was, in fact, first diffused in medieval times, then becoming his essential characterization, deeply affecting popular imagination, to the point that he became the patron saint of knights and saddlers (as well as armorers, soldiers, fencers and archers), and orienting almost univocally the subsequent iconography.

The essential information about St. George’s life came to us mainly from the so-called Passio Georgii, an hagiographic work that was, however, already labeled by the Decretum Gelasium of 496 as apocryphal (ie. unreliable because false) and from a few other texts that resemble, often altering, the same essential data. Sources tell us that George was born in Cappadocia (in modern Turkey) from a Persian father and a local mother, and that he was educated to the Christian religion and entered the imperial army. When the Emperor (who according to some sources was Dacianus, emperor of the Persians, but according to others was Diocletian, emperor of the Romans) decided to persecute the Christians, George gave his possessions to the poor and publicly professed his belief. After refusing to offer sacrifices to the gods, he was submitted to martyrdom, but he died and was raised three times, working each time conversions and miracles. The cult of the martyr and of his relics soon began. We know from works such as the De situ terra sanctae, by Theodore Perigeta (of about 530), that in the city of Lydda in Palestine (today Lod, near Tel Aviv), a basilica existed which was built in the time of Constantine over the tomb of the saint and other martyrs of the persecution of Diocletian (303 d. C.).

Jan van der Straet, St. George and the Dragon (1563-1564)
Badia delle Sante Flora e Lucilla
Arezzo (Italy)

It seems instead that the story of the battle with the dragon dates back to the age of the Crusaders and, according to some, would be born from the false interpretation of an image of the Emperor Constantine, portrayed in the act of standing above a pierced monster, seen by Christian knights in Constantinople. From there it would have spread like a folktale to be subsequently drawn on in La vie des Saints of the Norman troubadour Robert Wace (about 1115 to 1183, he was also the author of the Roman de Rou) and especially in the Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine (1228-1298).

Carlo Crivelli, St. George killing
the Dragon (1470)
© Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Boston

It tells that the population of Silene, in Libya, was terrorized by a dragon who lived in a lake not far from the city, killing anyone he could get hold of with his deadly breath. To placate him, the inhabitants offered him two sheep a day. The animals became scarce, but the terror of the people was such that they resolved to sacrifice a sheep and casted lots for a young boy or girl. After a few days, the name of the king’s daughter came from the lottery. The king tried to save her, offering his treasures in return, but the people who had seen their children die, rose up and, in the end, the princess was offered, crying, to her death. Just then, a young knight, George, was passing by, and, as soon as he knew what was about to happen, he offered to save her. When the dragon appeared from the water, sparking flames and smoke from his mouth, the young man went to meet him, galloping with his lance at his side. The battle was terrible, but the rider was able to pierce the monster, wounding him and knocking him down. George then turned to the girl and inspired her not to be afraid and to fasten her belt around the neck of the beast. Immediately tamed, the dragon began to obediently follow her up to the city. Seeing her arrive, accompanied by the monster, the inhabitants panicked, but George told them not to be afraid, that God had sent him to rescue them. «Be converted to the faith in Christ, he said, and I will slay the dragon». The king and the people did submit to baptism and the knight then beheaded the dragon with his sword.

Giovanni Bellini, Pesaro Altarpiece (about 1471-1483),
Predella
© Musei civici, Pesaro (Italy)

The legend has the typical features of an adventure from courtly romances: the noble damsel in distress, the heroism and devotion of the knight, the crucial trial which places the latter against a monstrous incarnation of evil. It is no coincidence that the story spread in the era of the full splendor of chivalric society and of the works that sang it’s deeds with epic tones. In particular, the episode summed up, in an exemplary manner, the mission of defending the unarmed and the Christian religion that was the foundation ideal of medieval chivalry’s spirit. This decreed it’s success and explains how the legend ended up in completely overlapping the life of the saint, imposing on the popular imagination. The same characteristics also explain the huge success that the clash between the holy knight and the dragon received in the visual arts, offering a perfect synthesis between a sacred subject and profane values. It is impossible to list all the artists who, since the Middle Ages, identified themselves with this fundamental image to our civilization. The legend also reflects clearly the influence of the myth of Perseus saving Andromeda from the terrible monster sent by Poseidon to punish the pride of his mother, Cassiopeia. Similarly, it is clear that in the figure of the young warrior who faces, on horseback, a fantastic creature, we find an echo of the myth of Bellerophon and Pegasus’s battle against the Chimera (to which we devoted a previous article in this blog).

Franz Pforr, St. George and the Dragon (about 1811)
© Städelsches Kunstinstitut
Frankfurt (Germany)

The intercession of St. George was considered particularly effective against plague, leprosy, syphilis, poisonous snakes, and diseases of the head. Speaking of horse breeding, in his treatise Razze, disciplina del cavalcare ed altre cose pertinenti ad esercitio così fatto (Races, discipline of riding and other things relevant to this exercise, 1560), Giovanni Battista Ferraro, argued that the window of opportunity for covering the mares began with the feast of St. George (23 April), «that being such a saint the patron of knights, it’s better that this job starts on the day dedicated to him» (Ferraro, 1602, I, p. 6).

Many “sacred mysteries”, ie processions and mystery plays, were dedicated to the celebration of St. George. In the fifteenth century, the so-called Ludus draconis had a certain spread and was later taken up and imitated in many spectacular performances that accompanied the Renaissance jousts.

Vittore Carpaccio, St George and the dragon (detail -1516)
San Giorgio Maggiore
Venice (Italy)

The cult of St. George was particularly widespread in England and was further consolidated after the Norman Conquest (XI cent.). During the Third Crusade, Richard I (1157-1199) claimed to have seen the Saint covered with his shining armor at the head of the Christian troops. His successor, Edward III (1312-1377), introduced the famous battle cry “St. George for England” and founded (around 1349) the Knightly Order of the Garter, in whose vestments the emblems of St. George are essential. Various other orders of knighthood bear his name, such as the Teutonic Order, the Military Order of Calatrava of Aragon, the Sacred Constantinian Order of St. George, etc. Finally, the red cross of St. George on a white field stands still on the English flag.

Bibliography

ANTONUCCI, Giovanni, La leggenda di S. Giorgio e del drago, in “Emporium”, LXXVI (1932), pp. 79-89.

FERRARO, Giovanni Battista, Razze, disciplina del cavalcare ed altre cose pertinenti ad esercitio così fatto, Napoli, appresso Mattio Cancer, 1560 [we quote from the enlarged and revised edition in Pirro Antonio Ferraro, Cavallo frenato, Napoli, Pace, 1602]

Iacopo DA VARAZZE, Legenda aurea, a cura di Alessandro e Lucetta Vitale Brovarone, Torino, Einaudi, 2007.

The bit that tamed the flying horse: Pegasus and Bellerophon

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

In the thirteenth of his Olimpyan odes, Pindar tells that the prince of Corinth, Bellerophon, suffered for a long time in the attempt to ride the untamed winged horse, Pegasus. It is not hard to imagine why he wanted to mount him at all costs. He was a prodigious animal, born from the ground bathed in the blood of Medusa or, according to others, even sprung from his neck when Perseus cut it with a sickle, killing her. The horse immediately flew to the abode of immortals and from then on lived in the house of Zeus, bringing the lightning and the thunder to the Father of the Gods. One day, however, he stopped  near the Peiréne source, not far from the city of Corinth. The prince saw him and tried to approach him, but the horse defended himself wildly. And yet his violence and arrogance increased the desire of the young man to ride him.

Athena, Pegasus and Bellerophon
Pompei – Casa dei Dioscuri, (fresco)

Exhausted, Bellerophon turned to the diviner, Polido, who advised him to sleep in Athena’s temple. As soon as he fell asleep, the goddess appeared to him in a dream. Handing a bit made of gold rings, she whispered him to take it and to sacrifice a bull to Poseidon. Immediately the hero awoke and found the divine instrument at his side. He ran to Polido to tell him what happened and he told him to obey the dream and dedicate an altar to Athena Hippia.

The power of the gods, says Pindar, does easily what would be sworn impossible. So, thanks to the prodigious bit, Bellerophon immediately subdued the fiery flying horse. As soon as he put the bit in his mouth, he could jump on his back, wearing his bronze weapons, and they immediately performed a warrior dance. Then, on his back, the hero defeated the Amazons, killed the Chimera and routed the Solimi.

Jan Boeckhorst , Pegasus (around 1675-1680)
Museu Nacional de Belas Artes – Rio de Janeiro (oil on canvas)

The story of the taming of Pegasus presents several points of interest. Besides in Pindar, it occurs in Hesiod (Theogony) and in several other authors, while Homer, who speaks of Bellerophon (in the sixth canto of the Iliad), does not mention the winged horse. Poseidon is qualified with the name of damaios, which means “tamer”, to emphasize the intimate connection of this deity with the horses, which makes him the protector of riders and charioteers, as well as the tutelary deity of the equestrian games. Athena also appears there as the goddess of Equestrian Art, bestower of the instrument that, by the force of an enchantment, can “win the mind” of the wild animal. Above all, however, the taming of the horse is seen here as a unique moment in which, thanks to a divine instrument, the hero manages to subdue the animal, that from unruly and violent, becomes immediately docile. Especially striking is the role of the bit as an essential tool of communication between man and horse. This anticipates a trend that will have a particular development during the Renaissance, when the art of “bridling”, which is the ability to choose the correct bit for each horse, will be considered “the true touchstone of the horseman” (Claudio Corte, Il cavallarizzo, 1562, p. 80r).

Bibliography

PINDAR, Olympic Odes, XIII.

HESIOD, Theogony, v. 281-286 e 325

PAUSANIAS, Guide to Greece, II, 31, 9 e IX, 31, 3

OVID, Metamorphoses, V, 250-268

WAGNER, Marc-André, Dictionnaire mythologique et historique du cheval, Monaco, Éditions du Rocher, 2006.