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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Homage to a Dragon-Slaying Saint

For aspiring heroes -- military or religious -- and even for the humble patriot, the tribute to St. George at Novodevichy Monastery is just the thing to inspire.


A patron of Moscow, and unofficially of Russia, a protector of souls and a master of courage, St. George is the saint with something for everyone. To mark the 225th anniversary of the order that Catherine the Great created in his name, the State Historical Museum is holding an exhibition in his honor.


Famed for his killing of an evil dragon who feasted on young virgins, St. George has come to symbolize the fundamental struggle between Good and Evil, with the dragon representing all that must be vanquished.


Adopted under Ivan III as a symbol of the Moscow knights, the dragon-slayer soon became the patron of the entire town, and by the 18th century he was splayed on the breast of Russia's double-headed eagle.


While he has been revered ever since the Crusades, not only in Russia but throughout Western Europe, some have given him a special function as the man of the moment in today's Russia.


"We are undergoing a very difficult process now that we have lost our previous ideals, and it's hard to find something new," said Ludmila Dementyeva, who conceived the exhibition. "We need a patron, just like in previous times people wanted the tsar to be like St. George -- a wonderful knight on a white horse."


But despite some valiant attempts -- including an impressive modern gold sculpture of St. George destroying a decomposed and rusty dragon that looks like a broken-down machine -- the exhibition is unlikely to motivate today's public toward gallant displays of patriotic courage.


Although the saint and his order serve as a common denominator that follows Russian history from 15th-century iconography to the end of tsarist Russia, he seems to look on from the sidelines rather than lead -- or inspire -- the course of events.


Although the exhibition seems to strain a little at its subject -- with some references as obscure as a Moscow coat of arms, bearing a picture of the saint in action, on the corner of a city map -- it nonetheless reveals a number of St. George's direct influences on worldly matters.


It is thanks to St. George, for example, that the kopeck got its name. Coins dating from the 15th century and showing the saint with horse and spear are displayed at the exhibition. The spear was called a kopyo, and the rest is numismatic history.


While the exhibition's first room is devoted to St. George in his role as a patron of Moscow and Russia, the second concentrates on the Order of St. George and its recipients -- the first being its founder, Catherine the Great, who presented the order's most honorable rank to herself following victory in wars against Turkey. But even Her Imperial Highness did not get all four classes of the order -- an honor attained by only four military leaders in the 148 years of its existence.


The last room, containing icons of the saint from the 15th to the 19th century, is perhaps the clearest indication of St. George's timelessness. While the dragon varies from an amphibious snake-like monster to a winged creature more closely resembling a dinosaur, St. George is always there, spear in hand and ready to come to the rescue.





The St. George exhibition is at Novodevichy Monastery, 1 Novodevichy Proyezd until mid-January, exact closing date to be announced. Daily 10 A.M. to 5 P.M. Closed Tuesday. Tel: 246-8526.