El Greco: St Francis and St John the Evangelist

I’ve had this draft sitting here in WordPress for three years with the above title, the content consisting solely of a link to this painting:

8452a8a4b4be891When I saw this painting in the Uffizi, there were some British visitors in the room. One in a wheelchair gestured at the painting, ‘What is that one?’

The pusher of the chair, who had been telling her comrade in wheels about the art, said merely, ‘It’s some man with a cup with a dragon in it.’

And moved on.

Although she did have more to say about a still life somewhere nearby.

She could at least have read the label, which confirmed what I had suspected: St John the Evangelist and St Francis of Assisi, by El Greco.

St John is identifiable by his cup with the dragon in it. The story goes that someone one tried to poison St John, and when the saint blessed his cup before drinking, it cracked and a dragon leapt out. If memory serves correctly, the same thing happened to St Benedict.

Dragons, by the biblical imagery, are representative of the Devil, the demons, and all manner of evil and mischief. So it makes a lot of sense as an image when someone is trying to murder someone else. Also, dragons are originally drakones, which are just big snakes. And snakes in biblical and western imagery and symbolism are tricksy and twisty and not to be trusted. Fitting for someone so wriggly as to murder by poison rather than face-to-face.

I first encountered the St-John-with-his-dragon-in-a-cup image in South Queensferry at the Priory Church:

My photo
My photo

And St Francis is your typical El Greco Franciscan. I do love an El Greco Franciscan. That pictured below was my first, sent to me in a postcard by my friend Emily:

1504grec

I realise that each of us has his/her own pieces that attract us more than others in a gallery, and I shouldn’t be a snob, anyway. But I wished I could have informed my fellow visitors, without being a jerk. But I’m too much of a jerk for that, so I decided to write a blog.

Because I like this painting, and maybe you, gentle reader, will like it, too.

Saint of the Week: Saint George

St. George's Greek Orthodox Church, Toronto

G.K. Chesterton once submitted an entry to a discussion about how St. George would feel were he to be dropped into modern England.  Most of the other entries talked about how vastly different England would be in their day than his, and how he would be shocked and surprised and feel totally out-of-place.  In true contrarian, Chestertonian fashion, G.K. submitted an entry that went counter to all of this and said how at-home St. George would feel in modern England, being a cosmopolitan man himself from the Mediterranean world of Late Antiquity.

Chesterton has launched his readers out of the myth that surrounds St. George and realised that this is a real man who didn’t even live in England.  And whether there was a dragon or not, St. George is worth a look, worth not skipping over.

George was a soldier.  He is one of the very few ancient soldier-saints, along with St. Demetrius.  He lived from c. 275-303 under the reign of the Emperor Diocletian (r. 284/5-311).  Diocletian was the last Emperor to engage in a systematic persecution of Christians.  Bishops and presbyters (“priests”, lit. “elders”) were asked to hand over the holy books — presumably Bibles, lectionaries, and liturgical books.  Christians w

ere forced to burn incense to the Genius of the Emperor to prove that they were true Romans and hadn’t violated the Pax Deorum.  Furthermore, all soldiers had to swear oaths of loyalty to the Emperor who was the Imperator — originally “General”, but now the sole general, the supreme commander of the armed forces of the Roman Empire.

He was not born a soldier, of course, but was nevertheless born into a family that included a soldier-father and both parents Christians.  When George was only fourteen years old, his father died, followed a few years later by his mother.  Young George decided to go to Nicomedia, which was then housing the Imperial court, and seek service in the guard of Diocletian.  Diocletian accepted George, having been acquainted with his father who man of great soldiering ability.  George would then have undergone all of the training requisite and necessary for a soldier and joined the household guard of the Emperor Diocletian.

St. George rose to the rank of tribune, and all was fine and dandy with his military career until 302.  In 302, Diocletian launched his Great Persecution.  Part of this persecution was the elimination of Christians from the army.  All of the soldiers were forced to sacrifice to the gods and the Christians were arrested.  George refused to make the commanded sacrifice and was thus arrested, having made a public declaration of his refusal and his Christian beliefs.

The Emperor Diocletian made many attempts to persuade George to make the sacrifice and surrender his Christian beliefs, but George was made of sterner stuff than that.  Following what was no doubt a very painful torture, St. George was executed by the Emperor Diocletian.  His torture seems to have included the wheel, and whipping, and other unpleasantnesses.

This is what we can know for certain.  The lesson runs no different and no deeper than those of Sts. Valentine, Polycarp, and other early martyrs.

St. George also has his mythical side, of which all are aware.  This is what drew me to St. George as a child — obsessed with knights and dragons, I remember reading a children’s book all about St. George and the Dragon.  In my wallet, I have an icon of St. George given to me by Michael, a Cypriot owner of a periptero (corner store).  I also have an icon pin of St. George on my jacket, given my by a guy on the bus one day here in Toronto.  Both of these icons have St. George mounted on his valiant steed impaling a dragon through the mouth with a spear.

To borrow a phrase from Emily, that which is mythical is “bigger than true”.  The literal, historical truth we have seen.  What of the bigger story?  St. George comes to a city where the spring was guarded by a dragon.  Every day, the citizens had to provide the dragon with a sheep to be able to draw water from the spring.  If they ran out of sheep, the dragon required a maiden.  Since the maidens were drawn by lots, inevitably the ruler’s daughter is selected.  St. George comes and saves her, slaying the dragon and converting the people to Christianity.

Some say that the snakes of Ireland driven out by St. Patrick symbolise the demons and old gods or the sins of the Irish people.  Perhaps that is what the myth shows us.  George comes as the valiant soldier of Christ, and he defeats the dragon — a traditional symbol of the Devil, as seen in the book of Revelation.  As a result of the death of the Devil or the old ways, the people are drawn to Christ.

Perhaps we are that city, beset by the dragon of sin and self-indulgence, and someone will come into our life as St. George to slay that dragon and set us free to worship Christ.