Monday, 23 April 2012

Stained Glass for St George's Day

As a fan of English medieval saints, I can't get as interested in St George as I am in saints like Edmund, Edward, Dunstan, Alphege, Etheldreda, Hilda, Margaret, Thomas Becket, and the rest. I've nothing against St George himself, but there's something inorganic about his patronage of England - he has always been a fairly well-known saint in this country (here's Ælfric's tenth-century take on him) but there's no reason at all for him to be a national saint, and he only got that job because late-medieval aristocrats had such odd ideas about English history. Admittedly, it's nice that his feast is today one of the few reminders of a world in which communal time was measured out in saints' days, relic of a calendar shaped by something richer and more human than the demands of the corporate world - but I'd give that up in exchange for never having to read another article which breathlessly asks 'did you know St George wasn't even English?!' as if there is actually anyone at all who doesn't know that.

But saints' legends aren't logical and I don't see why they need to be; we're in the world of myth here, and only the most unimaginative person could feel that 'dragons don't exist' is an argument against celebrating St George's Day. If nothing else, St George is an excellent subject for art: dragons and armour are inherently dramatic. So here's a collection of photos of St George in stained glass windows - and other media - from various churches.

This is from St Peter Mancroft, Norwich:

A wonderful dragon!

This is from Elham, Kent (he really just looks like he's dangling the dragon on a chain here):

A carving of St George on a wooden chest in St Edmund's, Southwold:

From Chilham in Kent:

Medieval glass from St Winnow, Cornwall:

And from Haddon Hall in Derbyshire:

His moustache!  From nearby Bakewell, with a grateful maiden in the background:

St George and barber's pole... er, lance, at Ringwood, Hampshire:

From Rochester Cathedral:

And this rather terrifying St George is from All Saints', Maldon, in Essex:

He's part of a tremendous window commemorating the links between Maldon and Malden, Massachusetts, and its connections with the family of George Washington. It includes scenes from American history, flags of both countries, an American eagle, lots of heraldry, and Joan of Arc.

St George is everywhere at Maldon; this is from that church too:

And here he is again, with other soldier saints:

I was at Maldon not because of St George or George Washington, but for the sake of Byrhtnoth and the other men of Essex killed in 991 at the Battle of Maldon, the subject of one of the greatest Old English poems. Here's Byrhtnoth on the outside of the church:

Byrhtnoth, who in the poem declares his intention to fight against the Vikings to defend eþel þysne, æþelredes eard, ealdres mines, folc and foldan, 'this homeland, the country of Æthelred my lord, its people and land', was an early patriot of sorts, but he would not have called on St George to aid him in battle; probably he and his followers, as loyal men of East Anglia, would have prayed to St Edmund, who had himself been killed by a Viking army about a hundred years previously. The unwarlike King Æthelred, for whose land Byrhtnoth died, was himself to die on St George's Day 1016. He was succeeded by his son, also named Edmund - another very valiant fighter against Vikings, if an equally unsuccessful one.

Thinking of Byrhtnoth, I was touched by the stained glass window in which that last St George appears:

It's a memorial to a young man named Cecil Desborough Bright who was killed in action in Mesopotamia in 1916 (coincidentally, the name Byrhtnoth means 'bright courage'). The window depicts a theme which St George and Edmund and Byrhtnoth, soldiers all, would have understood:

"Take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day."

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

"Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life."

þa wearð afeallen þæs folces ealdor,
Æþelredes eorl; ealle gesawon
heorðgeneatas þæt hyra heorra læg.
þa ðær wendon forð wlance þegenas,
unearge men efston georne;
hi woldon þa ealle oðer twega,
lif forlætan oððe leofne gewrecan.

(Then was fallen the leader of the people,
Æthelred’s earl. All the hearth-companions saw
that their lord lay dead.
Then there went forth proud thegns,
undaunted men hastened eagerly;
they all wanted one of two things:
to lay down their lives or to avenge their dear lord.)

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