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Received: July 12, 2001

The Legend of St. George Saving A Youth from Captivity and Its Depiction in Art*

Piotr Grotowski,
Crakow University



Few saints can boast the rich hagiography and variety of artistic depiction of St. George, an officer in the Roman Army, who was martyred during Diocletian’s persecutions. Eusebius of Cesarea did not mention him in his History of the Church nor in On Palestinian Martyrs1. However, as early as the year 323 an inscription was placed in Saccaea (Shaqqa) in Hauran which mentioned George among other saints, while the fragments of the oldest redaction of his Life, dating from the fifth century, survive in the form of a palimpsest2. As a soldier George appears in the Life of Saint Theodore of Sykeon composed in the seventh century3. But most important to his iconography was the much later writing of his Miracula.

Already in pre-Iconoclast representations the saint appears not only in patrician attire, but also as a warrior in armour with spear and shield4. However, he has only been depicted on horseback since the tenth century. Apart from cycles of his life, where emphasis often placed on the motif of martyrdom, artists also began to show events from the Miracula which were little connected with the saint’s biography. The most popular legend - of George fighting against the dragon and saving the sacrificial princess - acquired new meaning, becoming both a historical and a symbolic representation. One should also classify in the same category of images a group of his equestrian representations, showing George’s posthumous miracle of rescue of a youth imprisoned by infidels, a miracle known in several versions.

Among the representations of the saint in the art of the Eastern Church are occasional depictions of George on horseback accompanied by the considerably smaller figure of a young boy holding a vessel similar to a jug or a kettle, and sometimes a towel. As early as the nineteenth century, iconographers interested in Byzantine art noticed iconographic differences between those images wihout, however, being able to pinpoint their literary source. Adolph Didron was the first to mention the presence of a boy sitting behind the rider. Being unable to find any explanation for this, he left the issue unresolved5. In Enlart’s opinion, the boy is supposed to be a portrait of the painting’s donor. According to the conventions of medieval art, however the donor’s portrait was normally located in the bottom part of the composition, shown rather in a proskynesis pose 6. Clermont-Ganneau, on the another hand, claimed that the person accompanying the saint as a woman with an amphora. In his opinion, the female person was replaced over time by a figure of young man, and he compared this process to the myth of Hebe and Ganymede7.

Only the German philologist Johann B. Aufhauser has established a basis for further investigations on the topic of St. George with an adolescent. Firstly, in his publication examining the story of the fight against the dragon, he identified the boy with a certain Pankratios or Pasikrates or Passekras - a servant of the saint and the author of his Life who had been an eyewitness at his master's martyrdom 8. Nevertheless, as early as 1913, Aufhauser corrected his previous findings by publishing a collection of legends of miracles performed by the saint. This publication was of key significance in the further understanding of the iconography of George riding on horseback, accompanied by a boy 9. Among other tales, Aufhauser published three versions of the story about the boy’s salvation by the miraculous intervention of the saint. Although the construction and the plot are similar in each of them, all versions differ in details and historical background. That is why it is worth summarizing all three versions here.10

The oldest legend - as far as chronology of the source is concerned -is entitled ~Ετ