This is an icon of the martyr Saint George, who was executed at the hand of the Turks by public hanging in the Greek city of Ioannina in 1838, at the age of 30. The icon is notable because it was completed just 13 days after the death of the saint, commissioned by his own spiritual father. The icon is therefore not only a “devotional aid”, but an intimate portrait of a man painted by those who knew and loved him.
George was orphaned at a young age and afterwards forcefully recruited by into the Ottoman (Turkish) army as a horse groom; he was therefore considered a Janissary – one of the last before the practice was stopped. Despite being brought up surrounded by Muslim influence, George never wavered in his Christian faith; however, as a humble and peaceable man, his superiors were unaware of his faith. It was therefore a surprise to them when in his late twenties he married a Christian woman, had a child, and baptised him into the Christian faith. Considering him to have apostatized from Islam, they demanded he recant his Christian faith; to this he replied with courage: “I was never a Turk, I was always a Christian.”
For his confession of faith in the face of many threats, George was hung in one of Ioannina’s public squares. Even on the gallows, George confessed his faith, so that a shameful public execution designed to scare the local Christian community was transfigured into a shining example of true martyrdom. When his Turkish tormentors asked him “What are you?” before pulling up the gallows, George asked that his hands be untied. He made the sign of the cross and said, “I am a Christian and I shall die a Christian, I bow before my Christ and my Lady Theotokos.” Then, turning to the Christians who stood there he said, “Forgive me brethren, and God will forgive you.”
George was left to hang for three days on the gallows, and during such time his body did not show any sign of decay, so that even some of Ioannina’s Muslims declared his holiness. Read more on the life of St. George the New-martyr here.
Such boldness had a profound effect upon everyone who witnessed it, so much so that George was considered a holy man even before his death, whilst still languishing in prison. As his body hung in-corrupt on the gallows, a Muslim woman took one of his socks and laid it upon a sick friend who was instantly healed (as such, some icons of George’s body show him missing one sock). Such miracles only confirmed what the local Christians already knew of George: he was a Saint and a Martyr. Just a year later, a Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople declared George a Saint, and so “introduced” him to the wider Orthodox church; within a few years numerous biographies had been written about St. George the New-Martyr.
Yet long before all this, while George was not yet buried, the people of the Church had already recognized him a Saint and praised him accordingly. And it is amid this popular acclamation by those who knew him that the first icon of St. George was created: not after any “official” canonization, not after approval by the Church’s hierarchy, but immediately, by those who knew him intimately.
The icon that appeared within days of George’s death was commissioned by the monk Chrysanthos Laina, the spiritual father of George, and was painted by Zikou Chionaditis”. St. George is shown wearing the kilt-like foustanella and embroidered waistcoat typical of his home-village, along with the head-gear associated with the Turks. We can assume, therefore, that the icon also gives a likeness of the young George as he appeared on earth.
Since then, numerous icons have been produced of St. George the Neo-Martyr, and all reproduce without much variation the composition of the original. This is Holy Tradition in action. Without spurning the old devices of iconography (the red cloak of martyrdom, the cross held in right hand, the halo), a distinctive and personal icon is produced. And this very recognizable icon is reproduced faithfully by later iconographers so that over a 150 years later modern icons differ little from the original.
The icons of St. George the New-Martyr should not be considered as different to other icons of Jesus Christ and His Saints. Like the first, original painting of George as a Martyr, all Holy Icons are intimate portraits of the people we love, painted to show how we, as the Church, see them.