The depictions of St George that we have looked at so far in this series all show him as slayer of the dragon, whether active or passive in his actions. However, the legend of St George has many more facets to it than that. In fact, in the earliest versions of the tale the dragon does not even appear. The basic medieval legend tells that St George, a Christian and an officer in the Roman army, refuses to sacrifice an animal to the Roman gods. Because of this he is detained and tried by a heathen emperor. He undergoes hideous torture but continues to refuse to sacrifice, inspiring many onlookers to convert to Christianity. Eventually, he is beheaded and the emperor dies immediately afterwards. There are many variations on this, but the first appearance of the dragon episode was not until the tenth century. Nevertheless, it obviously caught the imagination of the masses, leading it to become the main story associated with the saint.
In the medieval period the martyrdom legend appears to have been as well-known as the dragon legend. In St George’s Chapel both of these legends are intertwined in the elaborate medieval woodwork in the quire. Ten of the scenes carved into the popeys (desk-ends) on the south side of the quire feature St George. Whilst depicting most of the narrative of the martyrdom of St George, they are not in any apparent order. However, we shall examine the story in chronological order here.
Unfortunately, there are some scenes, which are included in almost all other medieval depictions of St George’s martyrdom, missing from this narrative. These include the execution of St George, the baptism of the king, queen and princess, and the trial of the saint before the emperor. It is very possible that these images did originally form part of the sequence. The popeys on the return stalls (the stalls facing the altar) were replaced in the late eighteenth century and we have no record to indicate the original scenes which were depicted in these.
Nevertheless, the ten surviving popeys are a remarkable example of medieval storytelling and it is well worth taking the time to examine these beautiful carvings in more detail.
Anastasia Porteous, Archives Trainee
Credit: Much of the information in this blogpost has been drawn from Samantha Riches, St George – hero, martyr and myth (Stroud: Sutton Publishing Limited, 2000).