St. George – The First Syrian Immigrant?

The picture of Tess Asplund, defying a neo-Nazi march in Borlänge in Sweden, went round the world, as a symbol of resistance. Tess’s determined face is interesting, but the shocked faces of her tormentors, the Nordic Resistance Group, are in another league. How do they move her out the way, in front of the world media, without touching her? Look at the video of the incident and see how a male photographer was mistreated. It is only slightly reassuring that the far right hesitate to punch a woman in public.

The demonstrators deliberately stylised themselves as heroic Jupiters, the King of the Roman gods – full hair, beards, posturing. What does Tess’s face say? ‘I am Joan of Arc!’ More apt would be ‘I am St. George slaying the dragon.’

Hold that image! It’s not so far-fetched and holds a nice irony.

I found a sculpture in the Katherine Church in Lübeck, in which George has the face of a woman, or if one were kind, an early-teens boy. Could Tess be the woman on the charger? Is it possible to see Tess as George?

Waldemar Januszczak in his fascinating BBC4 program on the Dark Ages, pointed out that early portrayals of Christ gave him a feminine, or at least very boyish face. Only later, with the Mary cult well established in Christianity, do Jesus depictions move toward the heroic Jupiter-face. Waldemar explained thus. Early Christianity had an image problem – how to appeal to the 50% of the population, who were women. To get round this, artists often went for an androgynous Jesus. The later, post Mary Cult version of Jesus with Jupiter’s face, was designed to bring the pagans on board, without detaching them from their old religion. George’s female side is beautifully portrayed in any number of early 15th century sculptures by Bernd Notke. The Katherine Church has plaster copies. One of them cannot be a mistake. George is more feminine than the princess waiting to be saved from the dragon.

In the UK the far right has tried to hijack the cross of St. George as its emblem. I have bad news for them. Saint George was born in Syria and never visited Britain, which is a pity, since that would make him the first Syrian immigrant. He slew his dragon in Lebanon. The list of nations and institutions that have used the red cross and Saint George since the 5th century, is daunting. None of the George legends had anything to do with England, however, until the crusades, when the Knights Templar borrowed his red cross. Even then, they had more to do with France than England. Unlike the dragon story, there is good evidence George was executed on the 23rd April, AD 303, for refusing to recant his faith. The execution was harrowing even by 4th century standards.

Why was he the darling of the Crusaders, and is now saint of the far right? He was accredited with the power to protect the Crusaders, from the jihad. Thus, the dragon became conveniently associated with Islam as far back as the 11th Century.

Poor George. What did he do to make him the darling of religious bigots and the right? He made a personal decision during his lifetime, which caused his gruesome execution, and since then has been the proof of every xenophobic pudding – until 4th May 2016, when Tess Asplund turned the tables. She was George and the fascist were the dragon.

Tess is not alone. This month the Hillsborough families have managed to reveal the true face of the Murdoch press. Zac Goldsmith has paid the price for fighting the London Mayoral election on a race platform, and if that weren’t enough to make an honest heart beat a little stronger, we learn that Philip Green will have to explain in what way it was OK to plunder his workers’ pension funds. And to cap it all, the press has finally got round to asking the question, ‘in whose interest is it that HMRC has nearly 50% of its staff chasing 35 tax evaders?’ Even worse – HMRC is unable to provide data on how successful those 26000 staff are, at catching the 35 naughty boys and girls.

Tess, the Hillsborough families, the BHS workers, have become potent symbols. Tess is the biggest worry. Do we have to fear for her safety? The fate of Joan and George come to mind. They paid an awful price for their decency – and being a thorn in the side of those without a conscience.


Marina Warner’s book on the Mary Cult (Alone of All Her Sex) and Joan of Arc were republished this spring.

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