Why Are There So Many Coins Depicting Saint George?
On 1 February 2024, Künker will hold its 400th auction sale. It is an auction of superlatives offering selected rarities from the German states and the entire world. Among other highlights, this sale presents one of just two known specimens of a British pattern. The 5-pound piece with plain edge from 1820 depicts Saint George on the reverse.
Pistrucci and the Elgin Marbles
The story of how this design came about has been told time and again. We know how difficult it was for William Wellesley Pole, the new Master of the Mint, to employ the foreigner Benedetto Pistrucci as chief engraver at the Royal Mint. Therefore, his designs for the new sovereigns were invoiced separately. Pistrucci was paid 312 pounds and 8 shillings for four designs, three of which depicted the ruler’s portrait and one showed Saint George on horseback. As the mint’s engravers were not capable of translating the detailed depictions onto dies, Pistrucci created the master hubs himself for an additional payment of 100 guineas.
Less well known is what work of art inspired Benedetto Pistrucci to create his iconic motif. His naked George broke with the ecclesiastical tradition of depicting the saint. And that is no surprise! After all, Pistrucci’s George was inspired by the naked horsemen on the Parthenon frieze. When Pistrucci started to brood over what to depict on the reverse, Elgin was trying to sell the sculptures he had brought from Athens. For this purpose, he showed them to anyone of rank, title or power. Pistrucci was one of them. And he was in awe. The sketches and models he created based on the frieze inspired his depiction of Saint George.
As mentioned above, this story has been told over and over again. Therefore, we will turn to a different question: Why is Saint George a symbol of England to begin with? Why does “George” rank at the very top of the list of the most-commonly used names for rulers around the world? And why is this saint, of all people, depicted on so many coins and medals?
A Patron Saint’s Function on a Coin
Let us first examine why so many saints were depicted on coins. Basically, the reason is that saints – similar to gods on Greek coins – had a unifying element to them as all members of a community identified with “their” saint. After all, attending the celebrations in honor of your city’s patron saint was part of the duties and privileges of every citizen. Every single person had a clearly determined place in the community, and all of them came together to pray for the saint’s blessings. And since people tend to be pragmatic, they particularly like to worship saints that have already proven their power. And this brings us to Saint George and his popularity all over Europe.
George the Martyr
Let us get to what we know about Saint George. It is not much. We cannot even be sure whether he actually existed, although the original legend seems plausible. It is said that George was a Christ of Greek descent who was executed in the late 3rd century for refusing military service and was buried in Lydda (near Tel Aviv). Not an unusual fate under Diocletian’s rule. Given the shortage of volunteer soldiers, the latter issued a decree forcing all sons of soldiers to become soldiers themselves or face the death penalty. Of course, there were men who did not want to serve in the military. Many of them tried to justify this with their Christian faith.
We can well imagine this because the records of Maximilian of Tebessa tell of such an occurrence. Maximilian also refused military service under Diocletian although he had been declared fit for service. The authorities first demanded his father to convince Maximilian to bent to the rules. When this did not bore fruit, the proconsul stepped in. He spoke to Maximilian personally and tried to persuade the unwilling recruit – first with words and then, when reason failed, by threatening to have him executed. Even after some time to think about it, Maximilian still refused. He was beheaded.
George probably suffered a similar fate. His life became the core of a legend, which was later written down as folk tales. The manuscript was very popular and widespread, as is evidenced by the fact that it was mentioned in the famous 494 decree of Pope Gelasius I, which differentiated books of Scripture and theory that were part of the biblical canon – and thus allowed – from the Apocrypha, i.e., writings that were forbidden. Moreover, a fragment of the work has survived to this day. The legend of the dragon slayer does not play a role in it since it was not associated with Saint George until much later.
George the Dragon Slayer
The dragon slayer myth has actually been around since ancient times. It has been the subject of countless fairytales and made its way into Greek mythology with Perseus and Andromache. The story focuses on a community whose animals are eaten by a dragon. To prevent the monster from killing their livestock, the people promise to sacrifice a human each year. The lot decides who will be sacrificed, but when a beautiful princess is drawn by lot, a chivalrous knight appears and slays the dragon.
A knight named George, fighting the evil – it is no surprise that this legend deeply impressed the crusaders when they marched through the Holy Land. The story was first told by men from the eastern cost of the Black Sea. Therefore, western Europeans called their home Georgia. The first occurrence of this name can be found on an Italian map of 1320.
It was the crusaders who transformed the historical figure of Saint George, a man who refused military service, into a noble knight who killed evil to help good prevail. In their stories, Saint George became the role model of all the aristocrats that were enthusiastic about knightly chivalry. Therefore, George became a fashionable name in chivalrous circles.
George as a Political Argument
Did Saint George actually help the crusaders conquer Jerusalem in 1099? We may well doubt that. And yet, there are many sources telling us that the crusaders repeatedly called on George before battle. For example, in 1190, when Frederick Barbarossa commanded his men against the Rum Seljuks near Iconium. And, indeed, Count Ludwig I of Helfenstein reports that he saw a warrior dressed in white during the battle, who simply had to be Saint George.
Saint George turned into a warrior whose intervention proved that one’s cause was approved by God – at least that is how the crusaders interpreted it. Richard the Lionheart also resorted to the popular saint to encourage his men: he told them that Saint George had appeared to him in a vision and promised that they would win. And Edward III fell back on this myth at the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War when he placed his newly found Order of the Garter under the protection of Saint George. The order no longer opposed “heathens” but the supporters of Philip VI.
Sten Sture the Elder used Saint George in a similar manner. In 1471, he fought the Danish King Christian I for supremacy in Sweden at the Battle of Brunkeberg. Sten Sture also spread the rumor that Saint George had appeared in the battle to support him. After his victory, this caused George to become highly popular in Sweden. Not only does his image adorn the Stockholm Storkyrkan, it can also be marveled at on numerous church gates throughout the country.
George the Shepherd
Saint George is also venerated in Russia. However, Russians have not come to know him during the crusades but much earlier. To them, George is not a saint for the upper class but one that takes care of the common people. He gives rain to the peasants, good fortune to hunters, an abundant harvest to farmers, he heals the sick and protects cattle from wild animals.
George’s depiction can be found on very early Russian coinage and heraldry. To this day, Moscow’s coat of arms shows George the dragon slayer– the very image that we can see on the pattern for the 1801 ruble on the breast of the eagle.
George and the Legenda Aurea
Oral tradition changes and evolves, depending on who tells the story. It was not until the invention of letterpress printing that the legend of Saint George was written down in a unified manner, turning a medieval manuscript into a well-known bestseller. In his Legenda aurea, the Dominican Jacobus de Voragine summarized what he knew about the most important saints – including, of course, Saint George. For this purpose, he had to combine the story about a man who refused military service with the tale of a dragon slayer.
Thus, the story starts with the devout knight George killing the dragon. People were so enthusiastic about his deed, that 20,000 men had themselves baptized, not counting women and children – according to Jacobus de Voragine. But when George learned about Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, he laid down his arms and went on his way to become a martyr. What happened next would be well worth of a splatter film. His limbs were torn off, his body burned, his guts exposed and covered with salt. George’s wine was poisoned, he was put on the wheel and in a pot of boiling lead – but the saint continued to live. Then he was taken to the temple where his prayers caused fire to come down from the sky and consume the building and the priests. Along the way, he also persuaded the Queen of Alexandria to become a Christian (and martyr) herself, before he – we would almost like to say finally – died as his head is cut off. The now other-worldly saint now went on to quickly conquer Jerusalem too. And this is how his legend was from then on told by altar images, frescos and, of course, also by coins.
George in the 19th Century
This could be the end of the story, however, Saint George turned up time and again in worldly contexts. He still exists today – in the form of surprising incarnations. This medal for the 80th birthday of Bismarck depicts George, for example, with a spiked German “Pickelhaube” on his head. It becomes clear that the artist stylized Otto von Bismarck to be Saint George, celebrating him as a pioneering force fighting to protect the good against the evil, whatever this evil might be. Even if, as in Bismarck’s case, it is the Catholic Church. During the “culture war”, the chancellor of the German Empire issued the Pulpit Law, imposing jail terms on clergymen if they dared to give their opinion on political matters in sermons. He banned the Jesuit Order and Catholic schools. Civil marriage and the standardized state exam for clergymen in Germany date back to him. And yet, Protestant Hamburg seems to have appreciated his policies so much that they turned a blind eye to their dislike for saints and celebrated Bismarck as a new saint.
And Saint George still plays this role in today’s iconography. An advocate of the “good” fighting the “evil”, he is still present in cityscapes and numismatics – despite the fact that he was officially eliminated from the list of Catholic saints on 9 May 1969.