“I am dressed in the armour and the weapons of Jorge, so my enemies have hands that cannot touch me; feet that cannot reach me; eyes that cannot see me; and even in thoughts can do me no harm.”
Excerpt of Portuguese prayer to Sao Jorge
As we come upon the 23rd of April, the day of Sant Jordi and the International Day of the Book, it seems like a good time to take a closer look at this Roman soldier who became one of Christianity’s most popular saints. He is the patron saint of Catalonia and Aragon in Spain, as well as of England, Russia, Portugal, Greece and Palestine –his birth land– plus numerous cities and collectives. That’s a pretty impressive roster for a single saint, but then again he was a Tribunus of the Roman Imperial Guard and singlehandedly slayed a dragon, which makes him the kind of patron you want on your side in a scuffle.
The historic Sant Jordi, born as Georgius in Lydda, Palestine, to a noble Christian family, grew up to join the Roman army under Emperor Diocletian and rose through the ranks to become part of the Emperor’s personal guard. When the Emperor forbade Christianity, he tried in vain to convince Georgius to reject his beliefs. Instead, Georgius gave away all his possessions to the needy and prepared for execution. After various torture sessions, including laceration on a wheel of swords in which he was resuscitated three times, he was executed by decapitation on April 23, 303 AD.
Unfortunately, the bit about the dragon –which is by far the most colorful exploit in his career, barring his martyrdom, which only the church considers an exploit– is disputed by the Vatican because everyone knows dragons don’t exist. Despite this rare display of scientific rigor by the church, the slaying of the dragon continues to be Sant Jordi’s most valued attribute among the faithful, and one rarely sees a depiction of him where he’s doing anything else but slaying dragons.
Legend has it that the dragon forced the villagers to feed it a maiden every year. One year the chosen maiden was the princess. As the dragon came to devour her, Georgius rode up on his steed, made the sign of the cross and slayed the dragon. Where the dragon’s blood touched the ground, red roses sprouted. Today this legend is considered either a story invented by the Crusaders or a figurative tale in which the dragon represents evil being defeated or the forces of nature being tamed (the name George meaning “he who works the land”). The rose, naturally, represents the universal power of Love.
Note on Sant Jordi and the dragon: For some reason, classical depictions of the celebrated slaying make Sant Jordi look like less of a hero and more of a lizard-goring bully, given the typical size of the “dragons” in the paintings, which look like underfed komodos at best. Even if the dragon is figurative, surely something a bit larger would look more like an epic battle and less like an equestrian hit-and-run.
The Sant Jordi Bully Gallery
Now, finally, the books… why is Sant Jordi the International Day of the Book? Was he an avid reader, perchance? Not. The reason lies in the Catalan tradition of giving books and roses on Sant Jordi, on the 23rd of April, which just so happens to be the day both Shakespeare and Cervantes died as well. This fact inspired the UNESCO to declare this day International Day of the Book in 1995, which we’ll be celebrating on Friday in Barcelona with the Ramblas in full regalia, weather permitting.
Finally, some further reading for dragon lovers of all ages. One is my favorite version of the Saint George and the dragon story: The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame.
As for the other, I’ll say only this: watch out dragons, the boss is back!