The immediate origins of both the image and legend of St George the Dragon Slayer lie in Near Eastern survivals of Graeco-Roman culture where the hero/victor image of a mounted lancer was widely used on coins and reliefs and was also employed as an imperial sign of power.
The attachment to the cult of the Christian martyr, the third-century military commander George of Cappadocia, was a direct result of the First Crusade: the vision of St George joining in the Battle of Antioch in 1098, recorded by William of Malmesbury in Gesta Regum, established a vigorous cult of St George among the crusading knights, with the shrine of the saint at Lydda – situated in the area held in Greek mythology as the location where hero Perseus rescued Princess Andromeda from an evil sea serpent – becoming a place of special veneration for them.
By the thirteenth century St George the Dragon Slayer had gained the red cross of a crusader as part of his iconography and, representing the victory of good over evil, became one of medieval Europe’s greatest legends. In England, he became the national patron saint, and the chivalric cult of St George culminated in the Order of the Garter founded, in 1348, by Edward III with its official sanctuary in the Chapel of St George at Windsor Castle, and with its insignia containing the badge or jewel of St George slaying the dragon.
St George and the Gold Sovereign
St George slaying the dragon was the chosen subject for the new gold sovereign that made its debut in the late summer of 1817. Destined to become one of the world’s best-loved coin designs, it was created by the Italian gem engraver Benedetto Pistrucci who had come to London in 1815 and whose subsequent association with the Royal Mint brought about something of a golden era in numismatic art.
Founded on a style inspired by classical Greece, Pistrucci’s approach to the design represented a refreshing departure from previous gold coins whose style had been traditionally heraldic. It seems he may have found inspiration in the magnificent Elgin Marbles, the beautiful marble carvings that Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, brought to England in the early 1800s.
The ornamental frieze originally decorated the Parthenon in Athens and displayed some 400 human figures and 200 animals that seemed to be taking part in a lively procession. The horsemen provide a wonderful impression of movement, their face and body expressions conveying a sense of skill and confidence, as they easily keep their horses under firm control.
Pistrucci’s St George is strongly reminiscent of these marble relief sculptures, his horse adopting an aggressive attitude towards the wounded dragon yet effortlessly kept in check by his master. His design of a naked Greek horseman mounted on a Parthenon-style horse is, indeed, one of great classic beauty and many would still agree with Humphrey Sutherland who, in his book Art in Coinage (1955) declared it one of the noblest innovations in English coin design from 1800 to the present day. To the delight of collectors, artists and historians, it continues on the gold sovereign to this very day.