THE earliest known template for the image of St George slaying the dragon has been found in Syria, archaeologists believe.
A mosaic floor dating from approximately AD260 depicting the figure who became the patron saint of England has been found in the city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert. Experts say that the portrait is one of the finest classical mosaics yet uncovered and may even be the source of the St George legend.
George was reputedly a Roman soldier, martyred in Palestine some 1,700 years ago. The mosaic shows Bellerophon, a hero in Greek mythology, killing a chimera, and it was found in what appears to have been a dining room in Palmyra.
The warrior is wearing a wide-rimmed Roman helmet with a red streamer and is flanked by two eagles bringing wreaths of victory. Bellerophon is riding the winged Pegasus and thrusting a spear down into the lion’s head of the chimera, while its two other heads, a snake forming its tail and a goat on its back, hiss up at him.
Unusually, he has trousers and an embroidered tunic, the costume of Palmyra’s Sassanian Persian neighbours, and an open-sleeved coat of the sort worn by Palmyrene aristocrats.
The city was an outpost of Roman culture, located midway between the Mediterra- nean and the Euphrates, and its society reflected this rich blend of influences, stimulated by trade across the desert.
Michal Gawlikowski, the Polish archaeologist, said in the magazine Current World Archaeology: “Dozens of late Roman pavements representing Bellerophon are known from the western provinces, but this is the only one found in the Near East.”
St George was martyred in about 303 and the Bellerophon design provided a ready-made image to illustrate his emerging legend.
Dr Gawlikowski saw a political reading in the mosaic as well, with the chimera representing Palmyra’s Sassanian attackers, who were defeated by Odainat, a local ruler, in 259 in an otherwise disastrous struggle — even the Roman Emperor Valerian was captured and made to serve as a footstool. Odainat was a Roman senator, although Dr Gawlikowski said it is doubtful that he ever left Syria. After his victory, Odainat proclaimed himself “King of Kings”.
After Odainat’s death in 267, Zenobia, his wife, seized control of an area extending as far as Egypt, but was eventually captured by the Emperor Aurelian and imprisoned.
A second panel in the mosaic, which measures some 30ft by 18ft but occupies only part of the grand dining room, shows a mounted archer dressed like Bellerophon shooting a tiger, while another is trampled by his horse.
... a photo accompanies the original article.