A History of Eastern Orthodox Saints
by Michael James Fochios, edited by Aristides Isidoros Cederakis
Celebrated April 23
This great miracle worker and martyr lived in the latter part of the third century A.D., during Diocletian's rule of the Roman Empire. He originally came from the area of Cappadocia and was raised by very pious parents.
When Diocletian started his persecutions against the Christians, Saint George declared himself to be a Christian and thus denied the false idols. He suffered many tortures because of his belief, but never considered renouncing it.
The life of Saint George is a prime example of the life that each Christian should follow to obtain salvation.
Saint George, the Great Martyr, was raised in the Christian religion. His father, himself, martyred for his faith. After his father's death, George's mother took him to Palestine where she had some farm land. At a young age, he served in the Roman army under the Emperor Diocletian and was commended many times for his excellent service to the Empire. From the rule of the Emperor Decian, until 284 A.D., when Diocletian became Emperor, the Christian Church went through a period of peace and prosperity. During that time, the Christians obtained important positions in the government, built many churches and schools, and organized the authoritative structure of the Church. Diocletian gave many of his loyal officers political positions so that he could have the military strength of his Empire on his side.
After Diocletian had suppressed the barbarian tribes which were attacking the Empire and after he had secured its borders, he began to concentrate on the Empire's internal affairs. Diocletian believed that a state religion could keep an Empire united. Since paganism was the state religion, Diocletian focused his efforts toward the suppression of Christianity.
During the year 303 A.D., Diocletian summoned his aides to meet in Caesarea, a city of the Eastern Roman Empire. He held three general meetings with his aides, instructing them to persecute the Christians. Saint George, since he had shown his excellence while serving in the army, was among these aides. Diocletian asked them to pledge their allegiance to this cause by making pagan sacrifices as proof of their loyalty. All of the aides pledged their loyalty, except for the Saint. He stood in front of Diocletian and admitted his belief in Christianity, telling the monarch of the Christian teachings and the Godliness of the Crucified Nazarene. The Emperor ordered this Christian taken to prison and that a boulder be placed on his chest as a form of torture. The next morning Diocletian ordered that the prisoner be brought before him for questioning. George stood steadfast and told Diocletian of his belief in the riches of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Emperor then summoned the executioners to take the Saint and have him bound to the rim of a wheel set with sharp spikes. Diocletian admired the courage of the Saint and asked him to sacrifice to the gods to save himself. He refused Diocletion's request and welcomed the chance to martyr for Christ, as his father had done. After praying to God, he heard a voice from heaven say, "Do not fear, George, I am with you." With the help of Christ, the spiked wheel had no effect upon Saint George. When the Saint appeared before Diocletian not only was he unharmed, but an angelic aura had settled about him. Suddenly, two officers of the Roman army, Anatolios and Protoleon, appeared before Diocletian with two thousand soldiers. They admitted their belief in Christ and Diocletian had them all executed.
He then ordered his soldiers to dig a pit and fill it with lime. The Saint was then drenched with water and thrown into the pit. The water and lime would slowly destroy the Saint's body. After three days, Diocletian instructed the soldiers to clear the pit. To the surprise of the soldiers and the Emperor, Saint George sat at the bottom of the pit unharmed. Diocletian demanded to know what type of magic George had used to escape his fate. George answered that he had not used any magic, but that he had been saved by the power of God.
The Emperor then ordered that iron sandals be tied to the feet of the Saint and that he be made to run. As he ran, he was beaten. One of Diocletian's advisors, Magnentios, ordered George to perform a miracle. They happened to pass by a tomb of a man who had been dead for many years. Magnentios ordered George to resurrect this man to show the power of his God. After praying for a long time, he rolled the rock away from the tomb and resurrected the dead man. The by-standers praised the strength of Christ. Diocletian asked the resurrected man who he was and when he had died. He told Diocletian that he had lived before Christ had come on the Earth, and because he was an idolater, he had burned in the fires of Hell during all those years. Many idolaters were converted to Christianity because of this great miracle.
Among the people who glorified God and Saint George at the tomb was a farmer named Glecerios. Previously Saint George had resurrected this farmer's oxen, his livelihood. Because the farmer was so outspoken, the soldiers murdered him and thus he received the crown of martyrdom.
The next day, Diocletian met with his noblemen to determine Saint George's fate. They decided to beat the Saint mercilessly. The Saint nevertheless remained unharmed and retained his angelic appearance. Diocletian was convinced that all of George's miracles were done by magic. He, therefore, called upon Athanasius the Magician to break this magic. Athanasius held two vials in his hands. If the Saint drank the first one, he would go insane, if he drank the second one he would die. The Saint took the first vial and prayed. He drank its contents and there was no effect. Diocletian still believed that George was a magician; however, Athanasius realized the strength of God and confessed his belief in the Christian God. Athanasius was immediately executed by Diocletian's order. After seeing the miracles of Saint George, Diocletian's wife, the Empress Alexandra, also confessed her belief in Christ. Diocletian imprisoned her. Saint George was returned to prison and dreamt that Christ told him that he would receive the crown of martyrdom and life eternal.
Once again George appeared before Diocletian who ordered that Saint George accompany him to the temple and sacrifice to the gods. When they arrived at the temple, Saint George made the sign of the cross and the idols were again destroyed. The people and the priests were furious and demanded that Diocletian have the Saint executed. Saint George was taken out of the city and as he turned his head toward the executioner, he was beheaded.
In the history of our Church, we find a myth related to a dragon and Saint George. This dragon threatened the idolaters in the area of Atalia. The people were forced to live inside the walls of their city. This prevented them from tending their fields and grazing their sheep. Every year, they would sacrifice a young girl to the dragon. When Saint George arrived in this area, the King's daughter was about to be sacrificed. After subduing the dragon, Saint George placed a rope around its neck. He then gave the rope to the princess so that she could lead the beast back to the city. Thence, he slaughtered the terror and subsequently baptized thousands of the city's inhabitants.
It is from the icon of Saint George that this myth came about. The icon depicts the Saint as an equestrian slaying the dragon with the princess in the background. The first iconographers of Saint George were probably trying to depict Satan as the dragon and Saint George conquering evil. Another explanation of this icon is that the artists were trying to depict Diocletian as the dragon and Saint George conquering him. The princess in the background could have been the Empress Alexandra who watched Saint George as he triumphed. She could also symbolize Christianity, or the Church itself. When the Crusaders journeyed through the Byzantine Empire, they saw this icon and from its depiction they interpreted the legend which they spread throughout western Europe.
1. A woman had bought a pillar for a church being dedicated to Saint George in Rome. However, she had no means of transporting the pillar. One night she dreamt of Saint George. He helped her to lift the pillar and then throw it into the sea. Soon afterwards, the pillar was found in Rome with instructions to place it on the right side of the church as the woman had wished.
2. In the city of Paflagonia in Pontus, many churches had been dedicated to Saint George. Many families named their children George or Georgia in honor of this great martyr. The following, miracle concerns one particularly pious couple who had named their son George. The boy had been raised with great faith. As was the law, when he became twenty years old, he served in the army. During a battle with a barbaric tribe, many Christian soldiers were either murdered, imprisoned, or enslaved. George became a personal slave to one of the barbarian officers. His parents, giving him up for dead, had mourned him for a year. They went to one of the churches dedicated to Saint George and asked that he tell them what had happened to their son. The Feast Day of Saint George was being celebrated on the anniversary of the boy's disappearance. The parents invited their relatives to dinner since they hoped that Saint George would give them a sign concerning their son. That same evening, the barbarian master was preparing for a dinner and ordered George to draw some water with which to wash his master's feet. As he drew the water he cried and prayed to Saint George to reunite him with his family. As he prepared to return to his master, a horseman appeared before him on a white horse. It was Saint George. The Saint put him on the horse and the boy found himself in the house of his parents while they were eating. One may imagine the happiness that filled that house. It is from this miracle that another icon of Saint George is based. It depicts a boy on the back of the horse with Saint George. This icon was first made in early Byzantium.
3. In the same city of Paflagonia, some children were playing in the courtyard of the Church of Saint George. One of the boys was being teased by the others. He went to the icon of Saint George to ask for help. In return, the boy promised to make the Saint a food called sfouggato a type of onion omelet. The boy returned to the courtyard and won a wrestling match with several boys. He went home and made the sfouggato and took it to the Saint's icon. Shortly afterwards, three young men entered the church and saw the food. In jest, they said that the Saint would not eat the food, so they decided to sit on the steps of the altar and eat it themselves. When they tried to get up, they found themselves stuck to the marble steps. Only after offering the Saint three gold pieces, were they able to leave.
The icon of Saint George is rarely missing from the first row of icons of the iconostasis. A town with several Greek Orthodox Churches normally has one church named after this great martyr. His great honor is derived not only from the miracles which have been attributed to him, but also because many of his icons have performed miracles.
1. The Icon of Saint George in the Holy Monastery of Zographos on Mount Athos: In the year 919, three brothers-Moses, Aaron, and Vasilios-went to Mount Athos to become monks. They built three tents in a large valley near the river. They also built a small church near there, but were skeptical about what saint to name the church after. They prepared the board on which the icon of the patron saint of the church was to be painted, however, they did not paint the icon because they could not decide to which saint the church should be dedicated. When the monks went to the church the next morning, they found that an icon of Saint George had been painted on the board. The icon was painted in an ancient style. This miracle showed the brothers that God wanted their church dedicated to Saint George.
The institution which the brothers had established was named the Monastery of Zographos, or the Monastery of the Painter because of the icon's miraculous appearance.
The following is considered to be the history of this icon before its appearance in the Monastery of Zographos: This icon was originally in the Monastery of Phenol, located in Liana. From the time that Evstratios was the abbot of this monastery, the icon had performed many miracles. One day in the presence of the monks, the icon came off of the piece of wood on which it had been painted and disappeared from their sight. The monks were extremely saddened by this event and felt that God had forsaken them. Then, the Abbot Evstratios saw Saint George before him and the Saint told him not to weep for him for he was on Mount Athos. The abbot told the other brothers of his vision. Evstratios left the monastery, and after going to Jerusalem, he embarked on his journey to Mount Athos. After searching in many of the monasteries for the icon, he finally came upon the Monastery of Zographos. When he entered the church, he saw the icon hanging without anything supporting it. Evstratios remained at that monastery until his other brothers came to see the miracle.
That icon performed the following miracle: The Bishop Vothenon visited the monastery and began to question the events without faith. Pointing to the icon, he laughed and said, "Is this the miraculous icon?" He placed his finger on the icon and there it stuck. To this day, visitors to the monastery can still see the finger hanging on the icon.
2. The Miraculous Icon of Saint George Which Came by Sea From Arabia: This icon was found in the harbor of the Monastery of Vatopedi. Later it was discovered that the icon had originally come from Arabia. The abbots of the different monasteries began to argue about whom the icon belonged. They decided to place the icon on the back of a donkey. The onager was left on the cross roads between Mount Athos and Salonika. It was agreed that whichever monastery the donkey went to could rightfully claim the icon. The donkey proceeded to the Monastery of Zographos. After the donkey arrived there, it died. The icon was placed on the left pillar of the church, opposite the other miraculous icon of Saint George.
3. The Third Icon of Saint George in the Monastery of Zographos: On the third pillar of the Church of Saint George of the Monastery of Zographos hangs a third icon of the Saint. This icon had belonged to the ruler of Moldavia (Romania), Stephen. When ever he went into battle, Stephen would carry this icon with him. After capturing Constantinople, the Turks came to the land ruled by Stephen. He decided to fight the Turks inside the walls of the city. He saw a vision of Saint George which told him that the Saint would help him to be victorious. After the battle, Stephen took the icon to the Monastery of Zographos and gave a great deal of money for the purpose of beautifying this holy place.
4. The Miraculous Icon of Saint George in the Monastery of Xenophontos on Mount Athos: During the Iconoclast Period, several soldiers had taken an icon of Saint George and thrown it into a fire with other icons. When the fire had died, some bystanders saw that it had not consumed the icon of Saint George, but had damaged only a small portion of it. One soldier ran his sword into the face of the Saint. Blood emerged from this spot. The soldiers were so frightened that they ran. Some Iconodules who witnessed this miracle, took the icon to protect it from the soldiers in case they returned. They took it to the shore and placed it into the water. Then they prayed to the Saint to guide his icon to a place where it would continue to perform miracles. The icon landed at the Monastery of Xenophone on Mount Athos. The blood stains and the burnt clothing of the Saint can still be seen on the icon.
It should be noted here that there is a theory that Saint George and Saint Phanourios (August 27) are one and the same. This is so because Saint George's birth was said to have occurred in the city of Phanouel and because the tortures which the two Saints underwent were so similar. This theory has not been completely proven.
The fame of Saint George spread all over the East, and the Crusaders brought their devotion for the warrior Saint back to Europe. Through the Crusaders, Saint George became the patron Saint of England. He is also the patron Saint of Syria and Lebanon. The Emperor Constantine dedicated a church to him not long after his martyrdom, and in later times, he became an object of devotion for Christians and Muslims alike.
Saint George is the protector of Christians, and the patron of all who fight for righteousness. His cheerful fortitude and unswerving loyalty have inspired generations of Christians the world over.