St. George’s Day, April 23 in England, is observed in remembrance of the nation’s patron saint, who chose death over dishonor by refusing to bow down
St. George’s Day, April 23 in England, is observed in remembrance of the nation’s patron saint, who chose death over dishonor by refusing to bow down or stay silent in the face of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians and the Christian faith in the late 3 rd century AD. The heroic integrity of St. George is still remembered in Britain with fondness and gratitude, by people of all faiths and persuasions.
In one diocese in North Yorkshire, historical memory has been converted into unforgettable visual form. The aged stone walls of historic St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church in Pickering are lavishly and generously decorated with vibrant and colorful painted frescoes that depict vivid Christian imagery . These action-oriented paintings, which were commissioned in approximately 1450 AD, recreate important stories from the Bible, and venerate saints, religious leaders, and other individuals who played critical roles in the rise and sustenance of the Church.
Among this impressive collection, perhaps the most famous and acclaimed image is a painting of St. George, which brings this celebrated 3 rd century figure almost fully back to life, as it shows him in action performing one of his most celebrated (albeit fictional) deeds.
Visitors to the church on St. George’s Day may be drawn by the chance to see a famous painting of England’s patron saint. But regardless of their reasons for visiting, they will also have an opportunity to see one of the country’s most significant religious art collections .
The well-known architectural historian Niklaus Pevsner has referred to the mural at St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s as “one of the most complete set of wall paintings… and they give one a vivid idea of what [medieval] ecclesiastical interiors were really like.”
There are only five sets of such paintings still preserved and in existence in England, and they portray events and deeds that are every bit as relevant to the faithful now as they were six centuries ago.
Closeup of mural of St. George slaying the dragon at St Peter and St Paul Church, Pickering, England. (Helge Klaus Rieder / CC0)
The Dramatic History of a Remarkable Christian Mural
St. George was officially named England’s patron saint in 1350, and the very first St. George’s Day was observed in the 15 th century, in recognition of this 3 rd century martyr’s immense courage, selfless sacrifices, and unshakeable commitment to Christ.
In the mid-15 th century, elders from St. Peter and St. Paul’s Catholic Church in the village of Pickering commissioned an unknown artist to cover the walls of their medieval church with an expansive mural, in order to showcase important moments in Christian religious history. Not surprisingly, the artist included a large, vivid image of St. George in this collection, which showed him slaying a dragon.
The mural was designed for present and future generations. But just a century later, the mural was in imminent danger from Reformation authorities and fanatics who were eager to destroy anything that might be associated with their religious enemies . Wisely, the congregation at St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s chose to paint the walls of their church with whitewash, hiding the mural but at the same time protecting it from vandals.
Unfortunately, over time the existence of the hidden mural was forgotten, perhaps as a consequence of the church’s eventual incorporation into the Church of England .
The story of other saints are also represented in the mural. Here that of St. Catherine. (Helge Klaus Rieder, CC0)
Only through fortuitous circumstances was the mural rediscovered. In 1852, a cleaning and remodeling project revealed the existence of the hidden frescoes, which astonishingly were seen as an embarrassment by the serving Vicar, Rev. John Ponsonby, who called the paintings “ridiculous” and declared them “out of place in a Protestant Church .”
He arranged for the mural to be re-covered with thick yellow wash, which caused irreversible damage to some of the paintings. But before that task was completed an artist named W. H. Dykes made detailed drawings of all the imagery, guaranteeing that its existence wouldn’t be forgotten once again.
Thankfully, a future vicar named Reverend Lightfoot recognized the historical significance of the paintings, and in the 1880s he ordered the frescoes to be uncovered and fully restored, using Dykes’ reproductions as a guide.
The spectacular and awe-inspiring mural at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church has been on display now for more than 125 years, and it remains a popular attraction that brings visitors from far and wide. Naturally, St. George’s Day is an especially busy day at the church, as celebrants come to gaze at the striking painting that memorializes this acclaimed individual.
The epic battle between St. George and the dragon was first described in the Legenda Aurea, or Golden Legend, which was published in the middle of the 13th century AD. (Gustave Moreau / Public domain )
In Praise of the Dragon Slayer, a True Hero to the People
The iconic painting of St. George sits above a stone archway, and is brightly lit by a pair of adjacent windows through which the sunlight freely streams during daylight hours. The image shows the legendary figure slaying a dragon , re-creating his well-known encounter with a fearsome creature that had supposedly terrorized the city of Silene in northern Africa, before St. George banished him to the netherworld.
The patron saint’s battle with the dragon was first described in the Legenda Aurea , or Golden Legend, a collection of exciting tales that described the heroic exploits of famous saints and other venerated religious figures. This book was compiled sometime during the mid-13 th century by Jacobus de Varagine, the archbishop of Genoa in Italy. Varagine’s work captured the imagination of Christian worshippers everywhere, and his re-telling of St. George’s alleged exploits proved particularly popular.
The story of how St. George slayed the dragon to save a princess and rid a community of its persecutor came to symbolize his bravery and courage, and a 15 th century artist seeking to immortalize his deeds couldn’t have picked a more appropriate subject to portray.
Thanks to that unknown artist’s efforts, parishioners at St. Peter and St. Paul’s have been gazing in wonder at this memorable image for more than a century, which in a very real sense makes every day St. George’s Day at this small church in Pickering.
Top image: The famous mural of St. George slaying the dragon at St Peter and St Paul’s Church, Pickering, England. Source: Helge Klaus Rieder / CC0
By Nathan Falde