The Resurrection and St. George’s Cross

One question that I got after I wrote my blog about the standard and its military history was… but why did Christ’s standard look like it does? For instance, take a look at this picture, in which Christ is holding a flag that has a red cross on a white background.

Resurrection of Christ, by Guerau Gener, c. 1407-11. Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain. Via IllustratedPrayer.com
Resurrection of Christ, by Guerau Gener, c. 1407-11. Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain.

And there are many more examples of this symbol showing up in religious art! There are a lot of pictures in which Christ is holding a flag that has either a white background and a red cross (see this picture, this picture, and this picture) or a flag that has a red background and a white cross (such as this one). And this is consistently the case throughout all of Western Europe from the period of the 12th century onwards.

Which leads to the question: why?

The answer? This flag became popular around the 12th century because of two reasons: the popularity of St. George and the popularity of the Crusades. Let me explain!

St. George lived sometime in the third century and died in 303. Though historical records of him in particular are scarce, legend states that he was born in a Christian family with Greek parents somewhere in what is now Palestine. As a young nobleman in the Roman empire, he joined the Roman army, as was typical in his class. He thrived under the military and quickly advanced in rank… until 303.

At that time, the Roman emperor,¬†Diocletian, issued an edict stating that all Christians in the army were required to give sacrifices to the Roman gods and would be degraded if they professed their Christianity — and possibly killed. Then a high-ranking official, St. George realized that he would probably be killed soon, so he gave everything he owned away and then confronted Diocletian himself. There, in the presence of Diocletian, St. George declared that he was a Christian. Which is even more bolder when you consider that the emperors believed themselves gods and, that by declaring his Christianity, St. George was essentially calling out Diocletian of being a mere mortal!

Not wanting to lose a good military leader, Diocletian did his best to convert St. George into Paganism of Rome, to no avail. Finally, he sent St. George to the dungeon, declaring that St. George would be killed in the morning. But then, Diocletian did something sneaky… he sent a woman into St. George’s cell in order to seduce him and thus get St. George to renounce his faith.

No good! St. George ended up converting the woman instead!

He was executed shortly after.

St. George was venerated as a Christian martyr and seen as a patron of the military after that. However, it was only when the legend of him slaying the dragon was written somewhere in the 12th century that his popularity skyrocketed in the medieval era, filled with popular romances about knights. In those days, where medieval heraldry was the norm, it was popular to give saints their own heraldry.

And so… St. George’s cross was born! Since St. George was a saint who stood up for Christ, they commonly depicted his heraldry as a red cross on a white, though it was also commonly portrayed the opposite way (white on red) too! Take a look at this manuscript illumination of St. George killing the dragon…

St. George and the Dragon, c. 1270, ms 1853, f. 26r from Passio Sancti Georgii. Biblioteca Civica, Verona, Italy.

Around this time, another thing came about: the Crusades.

While in the modern day, the Crusades is seen as terrible, the Crusades were actually remarkably popular at its time! Before the Crusades, you were stuck in a caste system and couldn’t really advance out of your position, even if you wanted to escape the drudgery of peasantry and live the romantic lifestyle of a knight instead. As soon as the Crusades happened, this all changed, and anyone could go out as a knight and escape their peasant situation, if they wanted. As can be expected, many people did!

The Crusades also united Europe as a whole. Before then, Europe was populated by a bunch of vassal states. With the Crusades, they truly became Christendom and connected with each other. And their flags as they rode off to battle during the Crusades?

Flags with a crosses.

Procession of Crusaders around Jerusalem, by Jean Victor Schnetz, c. 1841. Palace of Versailles, Versailles, France. Via IllustratedPrayer.com
Procession of Crusaders around Jerusalem, by Jean Victor Schnetz, c. 1841. Palace of Versailles, Versailles, France.

Even today, in many European countries, many of the older countries still contain the cross in some form or another. The St. George’s Cross is even the flag of England!

So, this was the symbol that they draped themselves in while going off to war to reclaim the Holy Land from the Muslim invaders who were destroying the churches and killing the Christian inhabitants down there! And thus, it was only natural for the artists to depict Christ, in the moment of the Resurrection, as carrying their standard that they rode off to battle carrying. After all, they wanted Christ to be their standard in all things so that they could follow Christ… always.

Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of three, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer

Leave a Reply