New painting challenges image of St George the crusader

By staff writers
18 Apr 2008

A new painting of St George by highly regarded artist Scott Norwood Witts, which depicts the saint as a man of compassion rather than a crusader, is to be unveiled at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St George, Southwark, to mark the saint’s day next week.

The life-size but intimate portrait will be unveiled as part of the ‘St George in Southwark’ festival (http://www.stgeorgefestival.org.uk/events/). It shows the 'dragon slayer' as a saint of peace and one who chose risky debate over violence, the artist points out.

The new painting will first be displayed at the Cathedral on 19 and 20 April, to mark the beginning of the festival, which goes through to 27 April, ending with an international community lunch and dance at Blackfriars Settlement. The picture is then officially unveiled and blessed by the Dean on St George's Day (23 April – also Shakespeare’s birthday and death day) and is exhibited until 3 May 2008.

Scott Norwood Wills says that ‘St George and Dead Soldier’ was stimulated by the current deployment of British forces overseas and also by the historical misrepresentation of St George.

He comments: “The patron saint of soldiers and England is shown battle weary, identifying another fatality of war - exploding the contrived mythical identity developed during The Crusades, to reveal a man in mourning.”

As a high ranking soldier of the Roman Empire converting to Christianity was extremely dangerous, yet George’s faith inspired him to put down his weapons and personally confront the Emperor Diocletian over his persecution of Christians.

Scott Norwood Witts has previously exhibited at the American Church in London and the Carmelite Friary in Kent. Other commissions have included altarpieces at Dover Castle and the Royal Garrison Church at British Army HQ Aldershot.

The religion and society think-tank Ekklesia produced a report last year entitled When the Saints Go Marching Out: Redefining St George for a new era.

It caused some controversy by drawing attention to the fact that while subsequent myth had portrayed the saint in relation to crusades (religious wars), the earliest traditions about him were as an honourable dissenter against oppression who chose a risky path in challenging the Emperor and paid for it with his life.

“I hope many people get a chance to view this moving painting,” said Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow. “Facing our true humanity, something that lies at the heart of ‘St George and Dead Soldier’, points us beyond the glorification of power and violence towards a service of others which embraces the vulnerability of Christ.”

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