A day of roses, books and dragonslayers…or not

Statue of St. George by Donatello
A statue of St. George by Donatello

April 23 traditionally belongs to St. George. It’s not the Roman soldier’s birthday, however. It’s the anniversary of his death as a Christian martyr in the year 303. More than 1,500 years later, Saint George is one of the most recognized and venerated of Christian saints. George is also a martyr and saintly figure in early Muslim texts.

St. George was canonized and named a saint by Pope Gelasius I in 494, nearly two centuries after another Roman leader, the Emperor Diocletian had George decapitated outside the walls of Nicomedia. The crime for which George was executed, as one might expect, is professing his faith in Jesus Christ. Executing George, who by then had risen in the Roman army ranks to Tribunus and commanded the Emperor’s bodyguard in Nicomedia, was probably not Diocletian first choice. History indicates Diocletian first tried to bribe George and made many offers. George declined them all. Diocletian was left with no choice but to have him arrested, tortured and eventually executed for his faith.

The legend of St. George and the Dragonwas allegedly brought back from the Holy Land by returning Crusaders. The earliest known narrative text and depictions of the famous battle date to the 11th century. The complete story, as we know it today, was developed as part of the Golden Legend which assured it’s popularity as a literary and artistic theme in the late Middle Ages and beyond.

St. George slays the dragon
St. George Slays the Dragon

Whether it was slaying the dragon or something else, the Feast Day of St. George is widely celebrated and his patronages exist in a number of locations around the globe. He is the patron saint of England and his flag, a red cross on a white field will be prominently displayed during next weekend’s Royal Wedding. He is also one of the patron saints of Georgia and, while the country is not named for him 365 Orthodox churches with in it are.St. George be came the patron saint of Portugal during the reign of John I. The islands of Malta and Gozo also claim St. George as a patron and protector. The Eastern Orthodox Shrine of St. George at Beith Jala, near Bethlehem, is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims (who believe, among other things that he can cure madness, in contrast Christians call upon him for aid in battle).

St. Georges Day, 23 April,  is among the most important holidays in Catalonia, a region of Spain where tradition has is roses and books are exchanged with loved ones. Red roses are the traditional gift for the ladies, while men receive books. It is also the National Day of Aragon, another Spanish region where St. George’s Day is a public holiday. In medieval times, St. George was considered the patron saint of the Crown of Aragon.

In the U.S. St. George is known as the patron saint of the Boy Scouts (possibly because he is considered the ideal of chivalry) and the Armour Branch of the U.S. Army.

St. George is not just a religious figure. Perhaps because of his association with the dragon, he is also a preternatural one. Edmund Spenser included George as the Redcross Knight in his epic The Faerie Queene. And according to Romanian legends, vampires hang around crossroads on St. George’s Night, which might be why Bram Stoker chose to associate St. George’s Day with evil things.

St. George’s Day often falls close to Easter. When the days are too close, as they are in 2011, several churches move St. George’s Day. The Catholic Church will celebrate the feast of St. George on 28 April, 2011 while the Anglican Church will observe it on 2 May, 2011.

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