My family icon of Saint George has a legend attached to it. According to tribal lore, it hung in an ancestral home and I owe more existence to it, for it predicted imminent Ottoman reprisals during the 1878 Epirus uprising and apparently fell off the wall sufficient times for my ancestors to come to the conclusion that disaster was nigh and that it was time to flee. The fact that a cursory inspection of the inscription on the icon reveals that it is actually of Russian provenance, and probably of later acquisition, does nothing to diminish the intensity of the myth.
It is an icon that has fascinated me since my youth since its story, like that of the legend of Saint George depicted depends on an anachronistic interpolation: the earliest recorded hagiography of the Saint, a Syriac translation of a Greek original, dated 600AD, merely states that Saint George was martyred. The first mention of the dragon, appears in the eleventh century, in a Georgian source, when dragons had, to all intents and purposes, departed from this earth.
For me, the ancestral icon is absorbing because of the human protagonists’ body language: they all seem to avoid each other’s gaze. The princess, at the gate of the castle awaiting her deliverance stares at a point behind Saint George. She looks weary and impatient, as if he is one of a stream of would be knights in shining armour, yet to deliver on endless promises. The Saint himself stares not at the dragon he has managed to spear, nor at the princess, the object of his salvific endeavours but a point beyond the scene, if already envisaging his next damsel in distress. In contrast however with the humans, the gaze of animals in the icon is locked together, perhaps suggesting that the world of absolutes, that of the white horse and the dark dragon, lies beyond the understanding of mere mortals. The beasts look upon each other with gravity and a sense of camaraderie. They possess the knowledge of dialectic and discourse that defines the narrative and as such, become the narrative in exactly the same manner in which the human protagonists divest themselves of it. In only one other Orthodox icon I have seen, do beasts upstage the main protagonists in such a profound way.
I am equally enthralled by the fifteenth century Russian icon Saint George, pictured herein, of the Novgorod School. Infinitely more complex than my ancestral icon, this icon inducts us into a diagrammatic view of the cosmos in the form of a ladder ranging from heaven to hell. Between these two cosmic opposites, the drama is enacted: Saint George, mounted on a white destrier, impales the dragon. In the background, a mountainous, desert landscape is depicted, an almost surreal setting far removed from reality, suggesting there is nothing in the parastasis that can be taken as literal or natural. The figures, casting no shadows and set in a lunar landscape, grant the scene an unearthly quality. There is however, nothing absurd about the picture. Our eyes readily accept its beauty and the unnatural juxtaposition between the figures and the landscape. There are no laws here of the art of recreating natural effects, no perspective, no chiaroscuro, no anatomy. The scale, including heaven and hell, is logically inconceivable. Instead, the viewer is invited by the iconographer to enter another world, not one of realities that may be perceived by the senses, but instead, a world of cosmic and spiritual hyperreality: the unseen world of conflict within a person’s inner life.
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A horse depicted represents strength and power, but a man riding a horse represents strength and power harnessed and controlled. Saint George is the figure to whom we are drawn and invited to identify with. He is the man ideal, struggling for supremacy over chthonic forces and seeking to vanquish them by means of a lance. The lance itself, cutting the icon in two diagonally, plays the role of the Ladder in the icons of Saint John Climacus: it provides a means of providing and measuring ascent and descent. Straddling, transcending and seemingly controlling this grand polarity is Saint George who belongs neither to the higher world, nor the lower, but who appears to be tasked with maintaining an equilibrium between the two. Viewed from this perspective, the icon is not simply a pictorial representation of a man killing a beast, but rather a discourse in symbolic implication on the dialectic between the celestial and infernal within a person’s psyche and as such, a metaphor on the human psychological condition.
How is this dialectic played out? Could it not merely be designated as a conflict between good and evil? This engrossing icon suggests how subtle and profound the iconographer’s understanding of the interplay moral absolutes actually is. A western approach would label the horse as good and the dragon as evil. Yet the iconographer places both the horse and the dragon on the same plane, beneath the saint. Furthermore, the dragon is not given an ‘evil’ countenance. Rather, he appears to look lovingly at the saint as though acknowledging him, and what he is about to do. This dragon evidently has a relationship with the Saint. Thus, subversively, delineation of concepts of good or evil for this iconographer, are less important than their interplay: their gradations must be in a correct relationship with each other in order to maintain equilibrium within the cosmos. Thus, in the icon, Saint George does not kill the dragon, but instead merely pins his head to the ground, demonstrating his mastery the beast, just as he masters his horse. There is something Mithraic about the scene, a suggestion that this is a sacrifice that must be completed again and again, ad infinitum, if harmony within the universe is to be maintained.
Saint George, in performing this act of cosmic maintenance, is, in turn, depicted below the influences and powers guiding his hand. The lance delineates an iconic hierarchy of seven distinct stages: God’s hand and the heavenly realm, the cloak of protection, the saint, the destrier, the dragon, the earth and the subterranean depths of Hell.
The three central stages are of direct significance for humanity and the icon draws them at “eye level.” Humans are born at ‘earth level’ and are called upon to ascend, by subduing and mastering both dragon and horse, to the level where each of us can begin their ideal work. Significantly, there is no violence in the action as it is portrayed in the icon, no hatred or rancour. The proper equilibrium having been achieved, each protagonist expresses only his acceptance, as if performing a recurring ritual.
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The concept of cosmic harmony and balance, is also reflected with perfection in both colour and design choices of the iconographer. The rearing horse’s leap fills the ascending diagonal from left to right, but all movement is immediately arrested by the opposing diagonal of the lance. The delicate curves of the horse’s hindquarters and neck are balanced by those of the dragon, the saint’s halo by that of the saddle. Wherever one looks at the icon, one is able to observe that each line has its own unique corresponding echo.
The iconographer has thus transformed a scene of slaughter, removing us from a world of anguish, enmity and hatred, enveloping us instead within a feeling of love, silence and serenity. Saint George’s face is not contorted with fury or hubristic triumph. He is not plotting or considering his next move, but instead, radiates light, timelessness and spiritual joy.
The most endearing feature of both icons is held in common. Though the lance denotes a cosmic hierarch, its highest point, though at the same level as the Creator, appears not to emanate from Him or lead to Him. Instead, it exists opposite from Him, possibly suggesting that all of us need to use our own agency in order to transcend ourselves to the point where we may truly understand the nature of ourselves as icons of He who made us. Viewed from this perspective, as icons gazing at icons, as if in mutual recognition, both the naïve family icon and the complex Novgorod icon of one of Greece’s most iconic saints, assumes immense poignancy.