St George: patron saint of manliness

I’m writing a book on the history of masculinities from 1750 to 1918. One of things that I’m investigating is men’s interaction with objects that conveyed ideas about manliness. One of the most striking ‘objects’ that I have noticed is St George and the Dragon, patron saint of England, whose idealised form embodied many prized qualities of male behaviour.

Wikimedia St._George_and_the_Dragon

St George was and is very popular across the globe and is patron saint of several nations, towns and groups. In England he evolved from religious cult in late antiquity to national icon and from the early nineteenth century took prominence as a romantic, chivalric, and patriotic figure. St George was also a symbol of manliness as numerous Victorian depictions of the saint illustrate. The art historian Joseph Kestner declares him ‘a central tenet of the construction of masculinity (with all the attendant allied virtues of courage, valour, loyalty, comradeship).’ In particular St George represented the manly qualities of courage, self-sacrifice, strength, and virtue. I’ve talked about St George on this blog before here, and this post gathers together some of my thoughts on the way the figure of St George helps explain how ideas about manliness were communicated to men through visual and material culture. I think that he acted as an emotional catalyst in disseminating values to men.

The depiction of St George is fairly consistent – the ‘classic’ St George and the dragon: mounted with one arm raised, spearing the monster. The horse is either rearing or treading foursquare on the dragon with the whole forming almost a circular composition. This is his most distilled emblematic form. As a military saint the attributes of the warrior are his most obvious link to manliness. He had long standing appeal to soldiers from at least the Crusades to the First World War. St George was thus a useful cultural motif to call upon in times of war to inspire and persuade men to fulfill social expectations to fight. Nonetheless, his martial qualities were as central to manliness in the age of enlightenment as militarism for courage was always valued as an attribute of the manly man.

The look of St George was significant too. The male body was central to the concept of manliness throughout the period studied though its idealised form changed considerably over the 170 years. At mid-eighteenth century, the ideal manly body was dexterous and graceful, strong, but not necessarily rugged or burly. By the end of the nineteenth century, idealised representations of men were large, robust, and overtly muscular. Interestingly there are often two types of St George depicted in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One emphasises a very dynamic, forceful, muscularly poised body closely engaged with the dragon, which is generally large. He was mature, often indicated by bigger size – more bulk and heft, or by being bearded, or shorter haired, or wearing a visored or partly visored helmet. My impression is that the larger St Georges were popular in the later nineteenth century, when the more rugged masculine physical form was the standard and health and exercise actively promoted.

The other type was youthful, un-bearded, often combined with long hair or un-helmeted head. When associated with youth, St George is more slender and often languid; his apotheosis is in Burne-Jones’ images which are less about power and almost dreamily passive. The youthful depictions of St George particularly conveyed the allure of manly purity. St George was representative of virtue – most obviously because as a Christian Saint slaying the dragon he represented the mastery of good over evil. Generally chastity was a feature of the Saint – in the sense of mastery of body and emotions. But virtue was not confined to saints. Virtuous manliness was about correct deportment through bodily and emotional control and the regulation of appetite. Indeed, self-control was a feature of both the youthful and mature versions.

I think that St George’s continued association with pious and virtuous manliness helps explain why he was deemed suitable as a role model for youths in the late 19th c/early 20th. In his Scouting for Boys Baden Powell made St George ‘the patron saint of cavalry and scouts all over Europe’. Indeed he remains so to this day. The Scouts website currently explains that Baden-Powell chose him as patron because ‘St. George epitomised the qualities of selflessness and both moral and physical courage which he saw as being among the aims of Scouting’. In short, St George was an emblem who not only personified piety and patriotism; he modeled manly values like courage, strength and virtue. Thus the Saint was a vessel for a number of values associated with masculine identity. St George was a object to be produced, consumed, and circulated.

After all, the materiality of St George was fairly ubiquitous in so far as any form of cultural production can be. Men encountered his form in many places. He is seen in many churches and was also acted out in civic and folk performances. He was also an object to be handled and worn, worn on jewellery and as badges for hats (for example regiment pins which continued into the20th century), he decorated ceramics and was painted onto furniture. St George was also part of print culture from its inception in book frontispieces, antiquarian collections of passions, legends, and ballads, intellectual treatises, and children’s books.

His fairly widespread visibility is not alone sufficient to explain how the manliness he represented might be communicated and sought after. I think the emotive power of his materiality offers some clues into the successful circulation of his manly qualities. I’m suggesting that men – typically within but sometimes across social groups – shared a world view and emotional knowledge that they derived from a broadly common historical experience. Thus St George was a ‘thing’ that men who shared emotional knowledge consumed. For men encountering him, he served as an intimate devotional icon producing the male self. Effectively, men could interact with his image in very individual ways, responding to his beauty, his bravery, his self-sacrifice, his excitement, but shaped by their shared knowledge of gender constructions.

I think that this was powerful because St George evoked certain emotions crucial to this process. He served as an emblem or an idea stimulating emotions, such as love (for country, for God) and pride (for guild, for England); in war, aggression and self-sacrifice. He also served as a model of which [unmanly] emotions to restrain: fear, anxiety, grief, passion. The emotions he evoked are evident in the legends of his appearances to support the Christian or English on battlefields in the crusades, at Henry V’s victory at Agincourt, and most startlingly at Mons in 1914, an entirely fictional appearance which nonetheless stimulated considerable feelings amongst soldiers and citizens alike. As an emotional catalyst, it is, therefore, perhaps no surprise that he was used in memorials for the fallen in the Boer War and Great War, both in sculpture and stained glass window. Not only was St George a traditional figure deployed to lend meaning to large scale loss and a cult to promote the martyrdom of the fallen, in such memorials, he embodied the best of manliness cut-off in its prime; his use was intended to provoke profound feelings in those individuals affected – such as grief and resignation, pride and sorrow; but also was so recognisable he could not be forgotten.

St George was a vessel of specific manly values which were circulated through his form to be shared by men – and women who of course were involved in constructing manliness. As a form of material culture St George was an emotional catalyst. His connection with men was forged through various emotions, which thereby created a bond with specific manly qualities, and embedded them more firmly in men’s minds as a way to construct a self, and to access the power that manliness conveyed, although it was a power that was not without penalties, as the use of St George in war memorials demonstrates.

Image: Study of Carpaccio’s St. George and the Dragon. 1870-72 From “Ruskin, Turner and the pre-Raphaelites”, by Robert Hewison, 2000. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.