Saints . . . with Dragons!

Although the one on the fragment of altarpiece at Stift St. Florian did look a bit more like a Persian cat with some scales. The dragon seemed positively apologetic as it peeped out from under a fold of St. Margaret of Antioch’s skirt. I don’t think she even realized it was there.

I’m not certain if it was coincidence or tied to something older, but the three saints I encountered most often on this trip were St. George, St. Margaret of Antioch, and St. Florian. St. Florian made sense, because he is from Austria and was martyred (according to tradition) in an Austrian river. And St. Barbara always appears in mining areas (she’s the patron of miners, people who work with explosives, and one of the Fourteen Emergency Helpers invoked during plague or risk of sudden death). St. Catherine and her wheel turned up at regular intervals, as did St. Christopher (patron of travelers) because of the trade routes we crossed. But where I’d expect to find St. Michael Archangel, St. George appeared. And his dragon. Which is . . . interesting.

When I was in France, I noticed St. Michael everywhere. Sometimes he was hunting down demons or fallen angels or a dragon, at other times he held the scales of judgement (a new-to-me twist that I then found in New Mexican santos. Must be a Gallo-Iberian thing.) The historian and local guides gave several explanations, mostly that St. Michael was the patron of high places. Oh kay, that was new. Usually St. Michael is the defender of heaven, patron of paratroopers, and one of the two (or three if you use the Book of Tobit) angels named in the Scriptures.

Two years later, in Germany, I was told that St. Michael appears when a church is on a previously pagan worship site. Thus St. Michael’s in the Hofburg in Vienna. If you stand in the church door and face the plaza, you are looking at a Roman (and possibly older) archaeological site. St. George appeared pretty frequently in Bavaria, while St. Michael faded a little. And then I got to Styria and Carinthia, and St. George and St. Margaret dominated the scene. There were dragon saints every where I looked.

Interestingly, both George and Margaret have somewhat checkered reputations. St. Margaret was declared apocryphal as early as 494, probably because of the part of her story including the demon in dragon shape (she prayed, it refused to eat her, she was martyred anyway. Some pictures show her riding the dragon, others have her beating it with a hammer, or leading it on a leash made from her belt, but usually she’s just reading a book as it lurks around.) That didn’t stop ordinary people from venerating her, and she gained a reputation as a powerful intercessor, especially in times of plague and other emergencies. She appeared to St. Joan of Arc, but was demoted again in the 20th century. That has not stopped popular devotion, apparently, given her continued appearance and the candles and flowers at her feet in the churches. She’s also one of the Fourteen Emergency Helpers.

St. George is also under a bit of an ecclesiastic cloud. There’s the problem of the lack of documentation about his dragon slaying, to begin with. Then there’s also some question about his treatment of ladies and his methods of converting pagans. And the extended legend, where he comes back to life twice after being murdered by pagans and recidivists . . . well, I suspect the Devil’s Advocate didn’t have to work too hard to discredit that tradition. As an early pope said, no one doubts that George existed, but only the Most High knows what exactly he did to be canonized. He is the patron saint of military orders, as well a of England, and like St. Margaret is popular in the Eastern and Western Churches. Which might be a bit of a clue as to why this pair appear so often in Carinthia and Styria.

Carinthia was settled by Celts, who became (culturally) Romano-Celts after the Romans took over administration of the region. When Italian Rome lost power, the Goths adopted Roman culture and (after converting first to Arian Christianity [non-Trinitarian]) the Western Church. Meanwhile, Slavs, pushed west by a number of different forces, settled into the region peacefully and the whole area slid back into a Christian – pagan blend. One suspects missionaries from Byzantium came through on occasion, but it was not until the 800s that Western monks really pushed in and began reclaiming the area. Another massive development program took place in the 1100s, in part to shore up the division between the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nations and Byzantium, and because the Avars and Magyars had already shown that the region needed more defensive assets. The Turks would reinforce that observation 300 years later.

St. George and St. Margaret both (according to their traditions) converted pagans and suffered martyrdom for converting pagans to Christianity, and for defending the faith in their own ways. Here is a region that had slid part-way back into paganism, and lay on the front lines in the battle between Christianity, Paganism, and (later) Islam. Alas for writers and those looking for traces of lost dragon-worshipping cults and the like, there is probably no deep secret reason for George and Margaret’s popularity.

But that won’t stop me from coming up with one. 😉