The Saint, and the Knight in Panther's Skin

By Jheri St. James

The origins of the name Georgia, given to the Eurasian country in the Caucasus, located at the east coast of the Black Sea, are in dispute. Some think it is related
to Greek/Latin root words “georgøc” meaning tiller of the land, and “georgicus”, agricultural. Others believe
It is derived from the hero St. George, basing that on the popularity of a cult in his name in Georgia. This theory has more merit because of the five-cross flag, featuring St. George’s cross, used in the country since the 5th century.

St. George is one of the most venerated saints in the Eastern Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodox Churches. He is immortalized in the tale of George and the Dragon and is one of the 14 Holy Helpers*. St. George is the patron saint of Aragon, Canada, Catalonia, England, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Montenegro, Palestine, Portugal, Russia and Serbia, as well as the cities of Amersfoort, Beirut, Ferrara, Freiburg, Genoa, Ljubljana, and Moscow, as well as a wide range of professions, organizations and disease sufferers, such as herpes, leprosy, skin diseases, and syphilis.

In 303 Diocletian issued an edict authorizing the systematic persecution of Christians across the Roman Empire. George, stationed in Nicomedia as a member of the emperor’s personal guard, confessed to being a Christian himself and criticized the imperial decision. Enraged, Diocletian ordered his torture, including laceration on a wheel of swords, and execution by decapitation on April 23, 303.

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The region of present-day Georgia is bordered on the north by Russia, on the south by Turkey and Armenia, and on the east by Azerbaijan. It is a transcontinental country, located at the juncture of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. Georgia is currently a member of the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the Commonwealth of Independent States, the World Trade Organization and the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, and seeks integration with the European Union and NATO.

This territory has been continuously inhabited since the early Stone Age. Georgia had a true renaissance in the 12th-13th centuries AD, which preceded its European analogue by several hundred years. It was characterized by magnificent secular art and culture, the flourishing of a romantic-chivalric tradition, breakthroughs in philosophy, and an array of political innovations in society and state organization, including religious and ethnic tolerance. The Golden age of Georgia left a legacy of great cathedrals (see many great pictures at, romantic poetry and literature, and the epic poem, “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin”. This Golden Age was interrupted at its peak by the Mongol Invasion in the 13th century AD, followed by repeated invasions by Persians and Turks. In 1783, Georgia signed a treaty with the Russian Empire for protection, which culminated in the annexation of the remaining Georgian lands into the country of Russia. In 1918, the Democratic Republic of Georgia was briefly established. But Georgia was then occupied by Bolshevik Russia in 1921, and incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922. By 1991, after periods of civil war and severe economic crisis, Georgia gained its independence from the Soviet Union.

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Excerpts from “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin”, translated from the Georgian by Venera Urushadze:

“All at once they saw by the stream a stranger sitting and weeping./He held a black horse by the bridle and looked like a lion and a hero./His armor, saddle and bridle were thickly studded with pearls./ The rose was frozen by tears that welled up from his grief-stricken-heart.

“Over his rich apparel was flung the skin of a panther/And the cap on his head was made from the selfsame panther’s skin./The whip he grasped in his hand was thick as the arm of a warrior./The king and his host gazed with delight on this wonderous stranger…

“I wonder, what has happened? How was it and what have I seen?/The warriors he slew are countless and the blood he spilled flowed in torrents. Only a fiend or a spirit immortal could vanish as he did./Alas! All the mercies of God are bitterness now to my soul.”

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Georgia is divided into nine regions, two autonomous republics and one city. The regions are further subdivided into 69 districts. The largest city is Tbilisi, the capital. Mountains are the dominant geographic feature of Georgia. The Likhi Range divides the country into eastern and western halves. Due to a complex geographic setting, mountains also isolate the northern region of Svaneti from the rest of Georgia. The Greater Caucasus Mountain Range separates Georgia from the North Caucasian Republics of Russia. The highest mountain in Georgia is Mount hkhara. Out of the 2,100 glaciers that exist in the Caucasus today, approximately 30% are located within Georgia. The Voronya Cave is the deepest known cave in the world. Two major rivers in Georgia are the Rioni and the Mtkvari.

(Below, Tusheti in Kakheti Region, a village in the Georgian Highlands, a gorgeous example of the mountainous soil of Georgia. Pphoto by A. Slobodianik)

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According to the Golden Legend the narrative of Saint George and the Dragon took place in Silene, Libya. This town had a pond large as a lake where a plague-bearing dragon dwelled who was infecting all the countryside. To appease the dragon, the people of Silene fed it a sheep every day, and when the sheep failed, they fed it their children, chosen by lottery. It happened that the lot fell on the king's daughter. The king, distraught with grief, told the people they could have all his gold and silver and half of his kingdom if his daughter were spared; the people refused. The daughter was sent out to the lake, decked out as a bride, to be fed to the dragon. Saint George by chance rode past the lake. The princess, trembling, sought to send him away, but George vowed to remain.The dragon reared out of the lake while they were conversing. Saint George fortified himself with the Sign of the Cross, charged it on horseback with his lance and gave it a grievous wound. Then he called to the princess to throw him her girdle and put it around the dragon's neck. When she did so, the dragon followed the girl like a meek beast on a leash. She and Saint George led the dragon back to the city of Silene, where it terrified the people at its approach. But Saint George called out to them, saying that if they consented to become Christians and be baptised, he would slay the dragon before them. (picture: St. George & the Dragon by Rafael)

The king and the people of Silene converted to Christianity, George slew the dragon, and the body was carted out of the city on four ox-carts. Fifteen thousand men were baptized, without women and children. On the site where the dragon died, the king built a church to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint George, and from its altar a spring arose whose waters cured all disease.Traditionally, the lance with which St. George slew the dragon was called Ascalon, a name recalling the city of Ashkelon, Israel. From this tradition, the name Ascalon was used by Winston Churchill for his personal aircraft during World War II.

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Georgian architecture has been influenced by many civilizations. There are several different architectural styles for castles, towers, fortifications and churches. Georgian ecclesiastic art is one of the most fascinating aspects of Georgian Christian architecture, which combines classical dome style with original basilica style, forming what is known as the Georgian cross-dome style, developed during the 9th century. Georgian culture strongly emphasizes individualism and this is expressed through the allocation of interior space in Georgian churches.

(Right: Tbilisi, Georgia: Chapel near Sameba Cathedral – Photo by N. Mahmudova.)

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Georgia is well known for its rich folklore, unique traditional music, theatre, cinema and art. Georgians are renowned for their love of music, dance, theatre and cinema. In the 20th century there have been notable Georgian painters such as Niko Pirosmani, Lado Gudiashvili, Elene Akhvlediani; ballet choreographers such as George Balanchine, Vakhtang Chabukiani and Nino Ananiashvili; poets such as Galaktion Tabidze, Lado Asatiani and Mukhran Machavariani; and theatre and film directors such as Robert Sturua, Tengiz, Abaladze, and Otar Ioseliani. The art of Georgia spans the prehistoric, the ancient Greek, Roman, medieval, ecclesiastic, iconic and modern visual arts. One of the most famous late 19th/20th century Georgian artists is Niko Pirosmani.

Following is a photo gallery of pictures taken in Georgia.

Mktvari / Kura river from Narikala (photo by M.Torres)

Confluence of the Aragvi and Mtkvari / Kura rivers - view from Dzhvari hill - photo by N.Mahmudova

Shatili Medieval Village, Georgia

We know very little about the soil collection from Georgia at the time of this writing. The collector was a man named, coincidentally, George Davitiani, friend of Roberta Carasso, friend of the project, and an American who works in Orange County. There seems to be a hint that his was a going back to Georgia for some reason, unknown. At this writing, we do not know what the location was in that country, and our attempts at contact have hit dead ends. Nevertheless, we are grateful to have this soil in its jar on the Wall of Flags in Gary Simpson’s studio in Laguna Beach, California. He is one of our many good-hearted volunteers who have been responsible for all the success we have enjoyed so far. At this writing, only 25 more countries remain to be included in our pastiche of earth. Thank you, George, you are an unknown saint and hero to us.

We tell the story of Georgia, one of many in Common Ground 191’s conceptual art project; the wars, the heroes, the saints. We show the pictures of this mighty, historical land. And beneath each and every narrative or photo lies the earth, the soil. Even drawings depicting St. George are done with the Mother as a background. And yet, none of the history books refer to Her as anything other than real estate to be fought and died over, and buried under. We at Common Ground 191 aim to remedy this reality.

*These Saints are invoked as a group, apart from individual patronage, because of the Black Plague epidemic, which devastated Europe between 1346-1349. Among its symptoms were a turning black of the tongue, parching of the throat, violent headache, fever and boils on the abdomen. The malady attacked its victims without warning, robbed them of reason and killed them within a few hours, and many died without the last Sacraments. Fear caused many attacks and disrupted social and family ties. To all appearances the disease was incurable. During this affliction, the pious turned toward heaven, having recourse to the saints, praying to be spared or cured. Among the Saints invoked were these 14 who already had patronage over certain illnesses or tragedies:

St. Christopher and St. Giles, plagues; St. Denis, headaches; St. Blaise, ills of the throat [although St. Ignatius of Antioch is also a patron of those with sore throats]; St. Elmo, patron of abdominal maladies [and one of the several Saints having patronage over childbirth, which is not an illness, of course, as well as patron of sailors], St. Barbara, against fever, St. Vitus, [with St. Dymphna, against epilepsy], St. Pantaleon, patron of physicians, St. Cyriacus, recourse in time of temptations, especially at the hour of death; Sts. Christopher, Barbara, and Catherine were appealed to for protection against a sudden, unprovided death; the aid of St. Giles was implored for making a good confession; St. Eustace, patron of all kinds of difficulties, especially family troubles. Domestic animals were also attacked by the plague: Sts. George, Erasmus, Pantaleon and Vitus were invoked for their protection. St. Margaret of Antioch is the patron of safe childbirth deliveries [along with St. Gerard Majella and Raymond Nonnantus]. As devotion spread, Pope Nicholas V in the 16th century attached indulgences to devotion of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, which are no longer attached under the modern norms and grants, although their cult is still efficacious and to be promoted.





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