And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

fredag 22. februar 2019

Changing images of Saint George, c.1100-c.1340

One of my several ongoing scholarly obsessions is to emphasise that in the medieval cult of saints, one saint could be depicted differently at various points in time, in various geographical regions, and also at one and the same point in time - to mention just a few factors - and through this variety demonstrate and remind people that the iconography, the reception and the veneration of saints is not something static, but something that is continuously adapted through history, for instance by expansion of the legend, abbreviation of the legend, and through the emphasis on different aspects of the saint's story.

Yesterday, February 21, I was reminded of this when I saw the first of this blogpost's images tweeted by @red_loeb. This image is the initial for the opening of the passion of Saint George contained in a Cistercian passionary from Weissenau in the Diocese of Constance, Germany. We here see George placed on a wheel of knives - a method of torture nowadays most famously associated with Sainth Catherine of Alexandria. This was one of several stages in his passion story, and it emphasises the willing sacrifice and martyrdom which signifies George's imitation of Christ, and which was perhaps the most important marker of his claim to sainthood.

At the time the image from Weissenau was drawn, the legend of George was well-known in the Latin West and his feast was celebrated in calendars throughout Latin Europe, but it was before the image of George as a knight had become widespread in this part of the world. It is generally thought that George's chivalrous iconography was brought to Latin Europe from the sphere of the Greek church in which the cult of warrior saints had by the early twelfth century had a long-standing popularity (see White 2013). It is not known when the image of the knightly Saint George gained a foothold in the Latin West. In England, the earliest known depiction of this kind is a wall-painting dated to the twelfth century in the church of Saint Botolph, Hardham, which also features George's torture on the wheel. While dated to the twelfth century, the idea that the painting is from the earlier rather than the later end of the century is possible but not an inevitable conclusion.   

The martyrdom of George
Weissenau Cod. Bodmer 127, f.48r, twelfth century
(Courtesy of @red_loeb and e-codices, virtual library of Switzerland)

That the image of George on the wheel had a strong tradition in the Latin West can also be seen in the picture below from a Cistercian psalter from Rhineland, dated tothe middle of the thirteenth century, several decades younger than the Weissenau passionary. While the emphasis on the image in the psalter is on the angelic help that stopped the wheel from killing Saint George, rather on the executioner setting the wheel in motion, the main focal point of the image is the same in both cases: George wrapped among blades with only a loincloth to cover him, given over to the sacrifice that proves his willingness to die for the sake of Christ. It is the passion story that is being conveyed, not his life, his deeds or miracles performed for him by God.

Martyrdom of George
Besançon - BM - ms. 0054, Cistercian psalter, c.1260
(Courtesy of

Roughly contemporary to the image from the Cistercian psalter is one from a gradual - a liturgical book containing songs for the mass - from the Abbey of Notre-Dame in Fontevraud, home of the Fontevraud Order founded in the early twelfth century. Here, we see Saint George as a knight ready for battle, carrying the cross of Saint George as his standard. This image is found in the initial for the chant Protexisti me Deus in the mass for George's feast day of April 24. It is in every respect a different formulation of the image of Saint George: He is shown both alive and prepared for battle, not at anyone's mercy, and with his militant role emphasised rather than completely omitted as in the two images shown above. In other words, in the Cistercian psalter and in the Fontevraud gradual we have two contemporaneous representation, albeit from two different geographies, of the same saint that displays him in two markedly different ways.

St George 
Limoges - BM - ms. 0002, f.129, Graduale, Abbey of Notre-Dame, Fontevrault, c.1250-1260
(Courtesy of

When comparing the images from the psalter and the gradual, it is important to keep in mind the many contextual differences that prevent us to draw any more wide-ranging conclusions from the comparison.

First of all, while both images are from liturgical books, they do not play the same role in their respective codicological contexts. In the psalter, the entire page is dedicated to the martyrdom of Saint George, giving it a prominent role that was meant to be easily seen and recognised. In the gradual, however, the image much smaller and appears to serve first and foremost as a visual reminder of the saint for whom the mass is being sung. While it is likely that the initial would have been seen by several of the singers who could view the open page, its function as a mnemonic device is less prominent than George's martyrdom of the Cistercian psalter. In other words, while George in the psalter seems to have as its purpose to command focus and precipitate the beholder's meditation on the saint's imitation of Christ, the mnemonic function of the initial is more practical or mechanic, he is depicted to remind the beholder for whom the mass is being sung. This might also have to do with the fact that the chant in question is taken from the common of one martyr, a repertoire of chants that could be used in the liturgy for any martyr.

Secondly, it is important to keep in mind that the two books come from two different religious orders. I do not know enough about the order of Fontevraud to comment on their use of Saint George, but as for the Cistercians they were a conservative order. It is therefore possible that their use of the martyrdom has to do with the conservative nature of the order, and that we cannot take this appearance of the martyrdom motif in the iconography of Saint George as evidence for the widespread endurance of this motif in mid-thirteenth century Latin Europe as a whole.

Thirdly, aside from the differences between the orders and the codicological contexts, it is important to keep in mind that the psalter is from Rhineland while the gradual is from France. These geographical locations might have their own traditions from which they draw, and we must therefore be careful in drawing conclusions when comparing them.

However, one case demonstrates that the two images of Saint George - the martyr and the knight - were in use side by side in the thirteenth century. We turn now to a martyrology from Abbey of Notre-Dame des Prés of Douai, dated to the last quarter of the thirteenth century.

Martyrdom of George
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0838, f.078v, Arras, last quarter of the thirteenth century
(Courtesy of

George the knight
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0838, f.078v, martyrology, Abbey of Notre-Dame des Prés de Douai (Courtesy of

The two images above are from the same page in the martyrology of Notre-Dame des Prés, showing three images of Saint George: The standing soldier, the charging knight, and the unhurt, victorious martyr sitting on top of his would-be torture device. This shows clearly that by the end of the thirteenth century, both the martial and the christological image of Saint George was in use and had become established in the saint's iconography. It is here of particular interest that the abbey of Notre-Dame des Prés is a Cistercian house, and we see that this order has embraced the idea of George as an armed knight, a development possibly influenced both by the crusades of Louis IX of France earlier in the century and the ongoing efforts to have Louis IX canonised as a saint. Another point of interest is that the representation of the martyrdom has changed radically. While the images from the Rhineland and the Weissenau books emphasised George's complete lack of control on the wheel - his hands thrown out, in the first image at the mercy of the executioner, in the second image helped by angels - the image from the Cistercian martyrology is that of a triumphant matyr. He is still naked, but sitting atop the instrument of his passion with his arms stretched upwards in prayer or thanksgiving in front the pagan ruler and his priest, he appears undaunted and unafraid. Saint George is not unharmed as we see bloody cuts on his thigh and leg and his imitation of Christ is therefore clear, but he is not helpless, he rather appears to be petioning for divine help of his own strength. It is tempting to see this triumphant martyrdom as belonging to the same tone set by the two other - militant - depictions of George on the same folio. In other words, both George the knight and George the martyr are examples of triumphant Christians.

The two depictions of Saint George shown in these images demonstrate how one and the same saint can be presented in different ways, even on one and the same page, thus invoking different aspects of the saint's qualities - both the soldier and the martyr. Moreover, the different representations of one and the same motif - the martyrdom - also testify to the non-static nature of the iconography of saints.

The question then naturally becomes: How do we explain these changes in Saint George's iconography? Naturally, the present blogpost is not the right forum for drawing any conclusions, but I do want to point to some of the factors that must be taken into consideration when dealing with this question, namely that of the religious order for which the image was produced, the geographical location in which it was produced, and the time period in which it was produced. Here we have seen three examples of Cistercian representations of George's martyrdom from the twelfth to the late thirteenth century and from the German sphere as well as from France. Together they might show a chronological development from Weissenau to Rhineland to Douai, thus allowing us to follow the development of the image in time. However, the three images represent two different geographies and are too few to allow for any conclusions regarding the trajectory. It is possible that we see here two different traditions rather than one tradition developing over time.

I would like to see a more overarching, thorough, detailed examination of the available iconographic source material for the cult of Saint George in Germany and France from the twelfth to the thirteenth century. What I have shown in this blogpost is not nearly sufficient for anything but a pointer to a potential interesting development. The overall question here is whether, and if so when, the popularity of the image of George the martyr was replaced by the image of George the knight. The material I have gone through here point towards a change happening in the course of the thirteenth century, culminating in the fourteenth as suggested by two examples shown below. However, this is insufficient data for drawing conclusions, and it might be that the image of George the knight had been present in France much longer than seen in these examples.

By the end of the fifteenth century, however, the image of George the knight seems to have more or less completely replaced the image of George the martyr, both in France, in England and even in Italy. Why this is, and when we see the break with the depiction of the martyrdom, is something that remains to be argued and remains to be discovered, and I hope to be able to return to this at some future point.        

St George
Paris - Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève - ms. 0588, f.113, Vie de saints, c.1290-1310
(Courtesy of

George and the dragon
Auch - BM - ms. 0020, f.001, Ruralium commodorum opus by Petrus de Crescentiis, c.1330-1340
(Courtesy of

Similar blogposts

A carol for Saint George

A liturgical chant for Saint George

A nineteenth-century Hungarian imitation of George and the dragon

On the cults of George and Edward the Confessor in England

Saint George in the Old English Martyrology

Two depictions of Saint George in Odense


Gaposchkin, Cecilia, The Making of Saint Louis, Cornell University Press, 2008

Good, Jonathan, The Cult of Saint George in England, Boydell & Brewer, 2015

Riches, Samantha, St George - Hero, martyr, myth, Sutton, 2000

White, Monica, Military Saints in Byzantium and Rus, 900-1200, Cambridge University Press, 2013

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