George is depicted with the military attributes of a Roman officer, wearing an officer’s belt on his chest, with a dark blue tunic under his golden armour and his scarlet chlamys billows out behind him. His youthful face framed within a gold halo is serene and inward looking. He rides a dark grey horse and raises his lance to spear the golden-winged and golden-clawed dragon writhing beneath the horse’s hooves. Mounted behind George is well dressed youth with an ostrich feather in his cap holding a beaker in his raised left hand. The background is divided horizontally with a grey-green lower half and a dark, almost black, ‘sky’. Six prominent gold discs are displayed at the corners and the mid-point of the raised border and in the upper right corner the blessing hand of God emerges from the golden rays of the heavenly world indicated by a triple quadrant.
All the elements of the composition, horse, rider, dragon and decorative features are crowded into a charged space scarcely able to contain all the energy they generate and indeed we see places where they flow out onto the border.
The green and dark-green ground provide an effective setting for the reds, greys and the gold liberally applied throughout. The painter draws on the splendours of Palaiologan art in the fourteenth century (fig. 1) and the work may be a copy of a great Byzantine icon presumably now lost. He is not primarily influenced by elements of Venetian art characteristic of the Cretan School and widely prevalent in the post-Byzantine era (fig. 2). The expression on St George’s face, indicating that he carries out a divine purpose, is another reference to the fourteenth century as the comparison with an icon of the Virgin in Veroia shows (fig. 3). Here firmness of purpose, courage and confidence are spiritual attributes concomitant with the practice of contemplative prayer. The military aspect of Saint George here is that of the ‘unseen warfare’ or ‘spiritual warfare’ of the Hesychast monks.
The name George the Swift Helper is specific to a small group of religious foundations in North-eastern Greece and Serbia from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries.3 Our icon’s date is unknown but some features point to a later period, perhaps the seventeenth century where Mount Athos is the most likely place capable of producing a work of such artistic and spiritual accomplishment.
The figure of the second rider refers to a posthumous miracle attributed to George. Johann B. Aufhauser4 summarises three versions of the story he found in which a handsome young boy was taken prisoner by an invading army (Arabs or Bulgarians, depending on the version) and made to perform the role of cupbearer to the enemy leader. St George, answering the parents’ fervent prayer, rescues the child and returns him to his rightful home. The texts of the various legends all date to the tenth or eleventh centuries.5
Other scholars, such as David Talbot-Rice and Robin Cormack saw the second rider as a squire or princess related to the culture of ‘Crusader Icons’ and link it to an example in the British Museum (fig. 4).6 7
Piotr Grotowski identifies the ‘combined legends’ type that includes the slaying of the dragon and the return of the kidnapped boy and points to its emergence in the fourteenth century and to the importance of Mount Athos as the location for promoting it among in other Ottomans-occupied territories such as Bulgaria and Serbia.8