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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 ~Ετερον θαØμα περ τοØ ρπαγXντος νXον πÎ Συρ\ας (De iuvene Paphlagonesi capto). The text is preserved in an eleventh-century redaction in manuscript Codex Parisinus 1604 on pages 174v - 177v; its later variants can be found in the Codices Chalki (1559), Athous Josaphaion 60 from 1617 and Athous Paulou 91 dated generally to the seventeenth century. This version of the story reads as follows:

During their invasion of Paphlagonia the Agarenes11 took many people into captivity, among them a young boy who was a servant in the church of St. George in Phatris12. Some of the prisoners were killed, the rest turned into slaves. The boy was of such beauty that he was chosen as a servant for the Arabian ruler. As he rejected the offer to become a Muslim, he was sent to work in the kitchen. In his misfortune the poor boy prayed to Saint George. Once at evening, when he was lying in bed, he heard a voice coming from the yard and calling his name. The boy opened the door and saw a rider who caught him and placed behind himself on the horse. Then the steed rushed forward and started to gallop. The rider brought the boy to a certain building, and then disappeared. The exhausted youth fell asleep and next morning wa s awakened by the people, who were dismayed because his Arabian clothes suggested the presence of enemies. The boy recognised those people as monks. As it transpired, he had been brought to Monastery of St. George. All of them went to a church to offer a thanksgiving prayer to God for saving the youth13.

A more complex version of the legend survives in a manuscript written by the monk Theophanes in the year 1028, kept in the Moscow Synodal Library (Codex Mosquensis 381, fol 11-16v.) It can also be found in the following later manuscript versions: Vaticanus 679 dated to the eleventh century, Parisinus 502 from the twelfth century, Ambrosianus 192 from the fourteenth century, Athous Xenophon 4 from the fourteenth century, a manuscript housed in the National Library in Athens (no 278) from the fourteenth century, Paris Coislin 275 from the fifteen century, a manuscript from the Theological School Chalki 39 dated to 1617; Codex Athous Josaphaion 66 from the seventeenth century, from the monastery Barlaam (no 191) in Meteora from the seventheenth century; and no 1026 from the National Library in Athens from the seventheenth century. The legend is known by the title taken from the Vatican manuscript: ΔιZγησις περ τοØ παραδ`ξου θαbματος τοØ γ\ου κα πανενδ`ξου μεγαλομVρτυρος Γεωργ\ου τοØ παρz αÛτοØ γεγον`τος εÆς αÆχμαλωτισθXντα παÃδα κα παρz ¦λπ\δα σωθXντα, although in the literature its Latin version has been accepted: De filio ducis Leonis capto in Paphlagonia. This legend was enriched with numerous details, although the general scheme of events remains constant. The place of action was also changed. According to it:

Cult of Saint George was propagated in Paphlagonia, especially in the place called Ò Ποταμ`ς ³τοι Z ΟÆκιακ`ς, where a church of the saint was situated, to which numerous pilgrims was coming. A soldier lived there, name d Leon. He and his wife Theophano revered this martyr, and when their son was born, they named him George. When the boy had grown up his parents entrusted his education to those who maintained the shrine. When Bulgarians, Hungarians, Scythians, Medes and Turks threatened the northern borders of the empire, the emperor Phocas recruited an army. Leon, who was too old to become the commander of Byzantine forces, sent his twenty-year-old son George in his stead. Before the expedition started, they went to the church where George had been baptised, and the father invoked the protection of the patron saint for his namesake. The Byzantine army was defeated. Those soldiers who were not drowned at sea, nor killed by famine were taken prisoners. Young George, who was captured by the Bulgarians, was so handsome that their ruler made him a steward and kept the boy in his residence. Meanwhile the worried parents of the boy prayed to saint George to liberate their child. His mother in particular was pained by the loss of her son, of whom she was reminded whenever she met boys his age. The feast of the martyred saint came and the parents of the prisoner went to the church to evening mass, following which they invited their relatives and friends for the traditional supper. However, sadness reigned during the supper, as everybody remembered the fate of the host’s son. That same evening, the Bulgarian ruler ordered the boy to bring water for hand-washing during the supper in the palace. While the boy was going downstairs with a jug14 of hot water and a towel, the saint appeared to him on a white horse, ordered the boy to sit behind him, and immediate