Saint George and other warrior saints

The protagonists of our post, the warrior saints George, Theodore and Demetrius, ca. 1100. St. Petersburg, Hermitage

Warrior saints were extremely popular in medieval Christianity, especially in its eastern half. Many countries choose them as their patron saints, even replacing or pushing into the background such names as the Virgin Mary, for example. Their cults, churches and images were widespread, and the latter can still be found in most Orthodox homes today. Images of them were sewn onto the flags of many regiments, and the highest honor of the Russian army, the Order of St. George, founded in 1769, still bears the name of one of them.

Viktor Vasnetsov: Fundraising poster and stamp for the victims of the war, 1914

Warrior saints in Christianity? The absurdity of the concept is difficult to grasp for us, as the religion, radically pacifist from the start, has largely refuted its original principles over the past two thousand years. But for an early Christian, the concept would have been just as shocking, as, say, the term “Buddhist death squads” is for us, even though we have witnessed their role in the extermination of the Rohingyas in Burma.

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, says: “You have heard that it was said: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Mt 5:38-39). Therefore, according to the church fathers of the first centuries, a Christian cannot kill a man even as a soldier. St. Basil the Great says in his 13th canon that if a Christian soldier kills a man in war, he should not take communion for three years.

St. Basil the Great – ironically – between two warrior soldiers. Greek, 18th c.

The first Christians could easily do this. They lived within the framework of a gentile society, accepting, on the recommendation of St. Paul (Rom 13:4), its administration and organization of violence, as well as the fact that the gentile administration would defend the empire with weapons according to its own ethics. After all, all this will last only a short time, and soon Christ will come again. But when the tide turned, and, with the acceptance of Christianity and then its conversion into a state religion, Christians had to perform the task of national defense, and in an extremely difficult situation, during the age of migrations, the problem became very topical. Many Christians, if they could, chose disarmament, as St. Martin of Tours did, who, although being a legionary officer, refused to take weapon for matters of conscience on the eve of the battle with the Germans. He was condemned to death as a deserter, but he asked the emperor for only one night of patience. He spent the night in prayer, and the next day the Germans surrendered instead of fighting, and asked for peace. The Christian method was proven, and Martin was released.

Simone Martini: Saint Martin refuses to take weapons, 1312-17. Assisi, Cappella di San Martino

It is not known whether all barbaric peoples would have surrendered and asked for peace if all Christian soldiers had rejected the weapon and prayed. The leadership of the empire did not allow themselves this experiment. Christian soldiers also had to fight, and most of them did so in good conscience, as they defended their homeland, and because in Roman society every free citizen held either a civilian or a military post. And the Church, even if it did not approve, at least accepted this cognitive dissonance. From Saint August on, the Western Church attempted to establish the concept of a “just war”, elaborated in detail by St. Thomas Aquinas and the Thomist School in Salamanca. This makes war acceptable to the Christian citizen on such conditions that if all Christian soldiers and generals today would observe them, the world would be a much more peaceful place. The Eastern Church did not create such a concept, and it still does not approve the Christian man’s participation in war. It only considers it a “minor evil” in the event of an enemy attack, and demands repentance and spiritual recovery from the Christian soldier if he kills an enemy in a war.

The warrior saints became popular not as soldiers but as martyrs. They all began their glorious this-worldly careers by firmly sticking to their faith during the persecutions, and therefore suffering tortures and martyrdom. Their previous lives are not really important, and they are more or less similar: they were born somewhere in the provinces in the 2nd or 3rd century, then they either enlisted in the army or not (yes, many warrior saints were not soldiers), and at one point they had to choose whether to sacrifice to the gods who patronized the army or to the emperor, regarded as a god, or not. The rejection of this and the consequent suffering and death became the most important moment of their lives, the stirb und werde that converted them into wonderful examples of martyrdom, into mighty heavenly saints, for whose help masses of Christians pilgrimaged to their graves. It is characteristic that when first mentioned – in the records of martyrs from the 4th and 5th centuries, or, in the case of St. Theodore Tyron, in praise of St. Gregory of Nyssa –, no word is said about their acts of war, only about their courage as martyrs. And in the earliest representations they do not kill dragons, nor gentiles, but stand as glorious saints, alone or by the heavenly throne of God.

Saint Theodore Tyron and Saint George at the throne of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. 6th c., Sinai Monastery

It was their popularity as martyrs that made them great warrior saints, centuries after their deaths, when, during the siege of a city, the inhabitants prayed to them, trusting in their power. And when the city survived the siege, it was obvious to whom was owed their gratitude. A good example of this is St. Demetrius, the second most revered warrior saint next to St. George. He lived and suffered martyrdom in Sirmium (now Sremska Mitrovica / Szávaszentdemeter in Serbia’s Vojvodina region), which was then the Roman provincial center of the Balkans. According to his martyr’s records, he was not even a soldier, but a civil servant and a deacon. The Goths soon ravaged the region, so the provincial center had to be relocated to Thessalonica. There, a basilica was built for the saint, which later became popular, and his body was also transferred there. The Slavs flocking to the Balkans repeatedly besieged Thessalonica, but each time the defenders repulsed them, begging for the help of St. Demetrius, and some even saw a vision of him fighting in full armor, on horseback. And in the 1380 Battle of Kulikovo, the army of Muscovy defeated the Golden Horde under his patronage, thereby making him a warrior saint of Russia as well.

Christ and St. Demetrius. Greek, 18th c.

In a similar way, the peace-loving apostle of Christ, St. James resting in Compostela, became San Jaume Matamoros, St. James Killer of the Moors, and patron of the Reconquista of Spain, after slashing at Moors from a white horse in the Battle of Clavijo (which never took place).

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo: St. James of Compostela defeating the Moors, ca. 1750 Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts

After they became warriors, the martyrs still appeared on the icons alone or in pairs, but in arms. And if their icons were also framed by житие / vita, small biographical images, it was mostly the scenes of their martyrdom, and not their acts of warfare, that appeared as references to their holiness.

St. Theodore Stratilates. Mid-16th c. Novgorod, Museum

St. Theodore Tyron. Detail of the 14th-c. Novgorod Annunciation published in the previous post. Novgorod, Museum

St. George, 13th c. Sinai Monastery

Master Jovan (Ochrid and Western Macedonia): St. George, 1266-67

St. George from Novgorod’s St. George Monastery. Today in Moscow’s Uspensky Cathedral (see the previous post)

St. George. Constantinople, 12th c.

St. Demetrius. Constantinople, 10th c. New York, Metropolitan Museum

St. Demetrius. A Greek icon, presented by the Greek Cardinal Bessarion to Niccolò Perotti in the 15th century. With an oil holder on the top, containing holy oil from the saint’s tomb in Thessalonica. Sassoferrato, Museo Municipale

St. George and Demetrius. Kastoria, Church of St. Cosmas and Damian, 1180-1200

From the 9th century on, representations of the warrior saints become more vivid. This is due, on the one hand, to the revival of icon painting after the century of iconoclasm, and on the other, to the fact that new apocryphal stories start to seek admission into the legends of the saints. The process is bilateral: not only do new texts ask for representation, but new image formulas also inspire new stories.

The most striking change is that suddenly every warrior mounts a horse and begins to stab something evil with a spear: an evil enemy, a Christian-persecuting ruler, or an evil dragon. Where does this topos come from?

St. Demetrius kills the Bulgarian Tsar Kaloyan. Next to him, his disciple Nestor. Kiev, 12th c.

A widespread visual source of Late Antiquity, that we are not accustomed to considering, although they were in everyday use in Roman and Byzantine territory, and are still to be seen in abundance in museums and online numismatic auctions today, are the apotropaic amulets and talismans worn against the evil eye. Between the 3rd and 6th centuries, an important handbook about them existed,  the Judeo-Christian magic book Salomon’s Testament which survives to this day. According to this, King Solomon himself received magic spells and a seal from the Archangel Michael against demons, especially the female demon Lilith or Abyzou/Obyzouth, the killer of newborn babies. On the seal, Solomon himself sits on a rampant horse, as he spears down a demon lying on the ground, or in many cases a serpent in its place.

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Thanks to the amulet, the pictorial formula of the “sacred horseman” who defeats evil was widespread in Late Antiquity. When, around the 8th or 9th century as the latest, the Testament was abandoned by Christians due to its Jewish origin and magical content, the still widespread pictorial formula had to find some new content. It seems that the warrior saints have entered this space. From the 6th century, we know a Macedonian ceramic icon, on which the snake is speared – albeit without a horse – by two warrior saints, George and Christopher.

The first depictions where the pictorial topos was entirely assumed by a warrior saint, that is, sitting on a rampant horse and striking an evil being with a spear, come from 10th-c. Georgia. Apparently here, on the fringes of the empire, they first felt the need – and also the freedom – to fill the emptied visual formula with a familiar saint. This was St. George, whose cult unfolded around his tomb in Lydda in the Holy Land (today Lod, 15 km south of Tel Aviv) – also supported by Constantine the Great and regularly visited and spoken of by pilgrims –, but then it moved to the Syrian cave monasteries of Cappadocia. Georgia was in regular contact with both cult centers: the country was converted by Syriac monks from Cappadocia, and Georgian pilgrims regularly visited Jerusalem, where there was also a Georgian monastery.

St. George’s ruined sepulchral church next to a mosque in Lydda. Konrad von Grünenberg, Beschreibung der Reise von Konstanz nach Jerusalem, 1487, fol 33r

In these gilded silver icons, typical of the Northern Georgian, primarily Svanetian mining region, St. George kills not a dragon, but a man. And the man is none other than the Emperor Diocletian. The Georgian temperament could not bear that this emperor, persecutor of Christians, is gonna get away scot-free, and the Great warrior Martyr was sent to kill him.

But how does the dragon come into the picture?

The stabbing of the dragon/snake/serpent/ancient fish as the subjugation of cosmic evil is a very archaic motif tied to the creation of the world in ancient Mesopotamian mythology. I have already written, apropos of the Ethiopian “St. Raphael the whale-slayer”, that in these myths, the creation of the world begins with the hunting or capturing of the great ancient fish – Tiamat, Leviathan, and so on – living in the depths of the waters. It figured thus in the Hebrew creation story as well, before it was omitted at the final edits of the 6th c. BC, but its remnants are scattered throughout the Psalms and in the Book of Job.

Horus stabbing the Seth-crocodile. Detail of a window frame, 4th c. AD. Louvre

Archangel Rafael (right) fixes with his spear the whale on which a monastery was built. On one of the gates of Ura Kidane Mihret monastery church on Lake Tana, Ethiopia

It is no wonder that in many amulets, the “sacred horseman” of Solomon’s steal stabs a snake or dragon instead of the demon, or that the demon takes the image of these. And it is also no wonder that, when the “sacred horseman” is replaced by a holy warrior, this latter, too, also pierces a serpent or a dragon with his spear as a symbol of evil.

The first known dragon killing is linked not to St. George, but to St. Theodore Tyron. In the previous post we saw, that in his apocryphal 9th-c. legend, he had to kill a dragon that held his mother captive.

Nikifor Istomin Savin: St. Theodore Tyron kills the dragon that kept his mother captive, and leads her home. Early 17th c., Stroganov School, Saintpetersburg, Russian Museum

Therefore, the first surviving equestrian dragon killing is also performed by St. Theodore. St. George, who is paired with him, sill strikes Diocletian.

St. Theodore piercing a snake and St. George a man with their spears, 10th c. Sinai Monastery. According to Weitzmann, work of Georgian monks living there.

St. Theodore (or Demetrius) and St. George riding together and killing an emperor and a snake with their spears. Fragment of a Georgian icon, 12th c. Mestia, Svaneti National Museum

But the roles of the warrior saints are carried over to each other by their followers, and thus the images of St. George the dragon slayer soon appear.

An enamel icon of St George. Georgian, 12th c. Tbilisi, National Museum

St. Theodore and St. George killing a snake together. Cappadocia, Yılanlı Kilise, 10th c.

The apocryphal legend of St. George the dragon slayer was born in Georgia in the 11th century. From there it comes to Europe with the crusaders, where, around 1260, Jacobus da Varagine inserts it in the Legenda Aurea, the standard collection of legends of the saints for medieval Europe. According to this story, the Lybian town of Silene was plagued by a dragon living in a nearby lake, which demanded virgin girls for food. When the cast fell on the king’s daughter, and she had already been escorted to the lake, and the dragon had climbed out to devour her, suddenly St. George appeared on a white horse, and killed the dragon with his spear. Then he ordered the girl to tie the dragon with her belt and drag it into the city. The king, in gratitude, gave the knight a lot of money, who then turned around and distributed it among the poor and then disappeared. The people of the city, overwhelmed and amazed, converted to Christianity.

St. George’s icon with vita, Novgorod, 14th c. St. Petersburg, Russian Museum. The plot, floating like a fairy tale, is even here surrounded by the scenes of the saint’s martyrdom

St. George, Novgorod, 15th c. St. Petersburg, Russian Museum. This masterfully composed icon will be the model of most later icons of St. George and other warrior saints.

St. George. Crete, ca. 1500. Venice, Istituto Ellenico

The composition of St. George the dragon slayer can then be enriched with further details. In the following Russian icon, for example, you might wish to observe closely the hand holding the spear:

The raised two fingers clearly indicate to the initiate that it is an icon of Old Believers (staroobryadtsi, raskolniki). They were the Orthodox believers who did not accept the ritual reforms introduced in 1652 by the Moscow patriarch Nikon (which essentially served to harmonize the Russian and Greek rites). From then on, they were subjected to severe persecution. Many of them emigrated to the border regions of the empire, where they were more or less left in peace. I have written about the cemetery of such a community. One of their distinguishing signs was the two fingers raised, because the followers of the reform made the sign of the cross with three fingers, while the adherents of the old rites with two. They also adhered more to the traditional icons, while the reformers took over many novelties from Western art.

Vasily Surikov: The abduction of the Old Believer Boyarina Morozova, 1887. Tretyakov Gallery. The boyarina stubbornly raises her two fingers, reciprocated by some of the bystanders

Another motif is the little boy sitting in the saddle behind the knight. This was a Greek boy who had been abducted by the Turks from Mytilene just on St. George’s Day, and sold to a pasha. He and his mother constantly prayed for his freedom, and the next year, on St. George’s Day, on exactly the hour when he was kidnapped, St. George appeared on a white horse in the pasha’s court, grabbed the boy who was just then bringing coffee/wine to the pasha, and flew back with him to where he was abducted. This is why the boy is holding the coffee pot or glass of wine that he did not even have time to set down.

The image of the other warriors is also adapted to the formula of the “sacred horseman”, and they usually take on the admitted posture of St. George. St. Demetrius, for example, also develops his own spear legend: in 1207, during another siege of Thessalonica, he rode out into the Bulgarian camp, and he personally killed the Bulgarian Tsar Kaloyan in the middle of it.

St. Demetrius of Solun. Rostov, 16th c.

St. Demetrius on a 19th-c. Russian copper icon

St. Demetrius, with St. George and St. Mercurius. Greek, 16th c.

In many icons, the warrior saints perform their miracles together, reinforcing each other’s power, and repeating the common motif of the ancient Dioscuri and the Indo-European twin riders.

St. George and St. Demetrius. Bulgarian, Perushtitsa, 18th c. Sofia, National Gallery

St. George and St. Demetrius. Sachkhere, Georgia, 12th c.

Particularly beautiful, colorful and exciting versions of St. George are the Ethiopian icons and frescoes, like the following ones from the monasteries of Lake Tana and the Gondar Cathedral. I will write about their specific iconography later.

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