Thursday, April 23, 2009
St. George: A Gay Saint? (Today is his Feast Day)
St. George is, along with St. Nicholas, without any question among the most popular of all saints in history. The odd thing is that nothing whatsoever can be established about him as a historical figure. Indeed the among earliest references to this cult in the West involve papal condemnations of the myths surrounding him.
So how can George be included in a list of "queer" saints. For two reasons - iconographic and textual.
No one reading early texts about George can fail to be impressed by the explicit homoeroticism in them. George at one stage is about to marry, but is prevented by Christ. As the text said "[George] did not know that Christ was keeping him as a pure virginal bridegroom for himself". (Budge, 282) Later on after mind-boggling escapades [George is killed and resurrected a number or times in his myths], Christ welcomes George into Heaven with bridal imagery: - "And the Lord said to the blessed George, Hail, My George! Hail beloved of myself and of My Angels…I swear by My right hand, Oh my beloved one that I will establish a covenant with thee that when thou shalt bow thyself upon thy spiritual face in heaven and shall come with all they congregation to worship the holy Trinity, all the saints know thee by reason of the honour which I will show thee, O My beloved… " (Budge 320-21).
In these texts, here from Coptic versions, George is presented as the bridegroom of Christ. Bridal imagery is quite common in discourse about Christ, but usually male saints are made into "brides of Christ" [see Carolyn Walker Bynum's work on this], but with George a same sex marital imagery is used.
George is among the most common subjects of religious art. His iconographic type is fixed - he is a young beardless warrior. It is worth noting that some commentators have seen appeal of this figure as androgynous. Here are the comments of Christopher Walter, a recent commentator on the cult of George:-
'There can be not doubt that [George] had an exceptional affective appeal, difficult perhaps for us to grasp, since the Byzantines have not bequeathed us many empirical descriptions of their feelings. Some reconstruction can be tentatively undertaken….Thomas Matthews has studied the affective attitude of the Byzantines towards their icons and the saints represented on the icons. `One was supposed to fall in love with these saints.' Or elsewhere: 'The involvement of the Orthodox beholder with his painted images was complete…The believer entered a world of images in a way the modern view of paintings cannot accomplish". However, empathy as a characteristic of human psychology, must keep pace with development and changes in artistic media. It may not be amiss therefore to quote James Baldwin's description of a budding actor in a film. It seems to me to give some insight into the way that a Byzantine saw an icon of St. George:`…The face of a man, of a tormented man. Yet, in precisely the way that great music depends, ultimately, on a great silence, this masculinity was defined and made powerful by something which was not masculine. It was not feminine either and something….resisted the word androgynous. It was a quality to which numbers of persons would respond without knowing what it was that they were responding. There was a great force in face and a great gentleness…It was a face which suggested, resonantly in the depths the truth about our natures'" (Walter, 320)
In addition to all the above, George is patron saint of scouting, chosen as such by Baden Powell. There is a webpage for George, Patron of Scouts!
Budge, Earnest Wallis, The Martyrdom and Miracles of St. George of Cappodocia: The Coptic Texts, (London: D. Nutt, 1888)
Bynum, Caroline Walker, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages, (Berkeley: 1982)
Walter, Christopher, "The Origins of the Cult of St. George", Revue des études byzantines 53 (1995), 295-326