Friday, April 25, 2014

Books, roses and a dragon


Are you familiar with the legend of Saint George, the Greek soldier of the Roman Empire who is told to have rescued a princess from being offered to a dragon? As our reformed tradition doesn’t teach us anything about saints I am outlining below what I have learned about his tale.




A dragon or a crocodile had made its nest by a spring that gave water to a city. To be able to fetch water the citizens had to drive the dragon away every day by offering it a sheep or when a sheep was not available or enough a maiden. One day the lot fell on the king’s daughter. He tried to buy a substitute but his pleas were not heard and she had to be sacrificed. At that moment the Christian warrior Saint George appeared out of nowhere, made the sign of the cross and killed the dragon with his lance. The princess was saved and the citizens were converted from paganism to Christianity.


The dragon gate to the Finca Güell also called the Güell Pavilions by Antoni Gaudí.


Because of the legend Saint George is generally depicted slaying a dragon. He is the patron saint of numerous countries and places around the world, such as England, Portugal and Greece; quite a number of municipalities, especially in Italy; the Spanish autonomous communities of Aragon, the Balearic Islands and Catalonia; and also the city of Barcelona, where you cannot help bumping into a statue of the saint and the dragon every now and then. There is even one in the cloister of the Cathedral.



St George’s Day or Sant Jordi has been celebrated in Catalonia from the 15th century on April 23, the date of his death. Roses have been a part of the feast since medieval times but it was only in the 1920s when booksellers in Barcelona realized it would be a perfect occasion to promote literature as also Miguel de Cervantes had died on April 23. So had William Shakespeare, both in 1616. This coincidence is now known to be a misinterpretation as Spain and England did not follow the same calendar in those days but never mind. Today, even Shakespeare’s birthday is celebrated on this date as the exact date of his birth is not known, only that he was baptised on April 26.



Before long Sant Jordi had turned into a feast when the ladies were supposed to give their loved one a book and the gentlemen their sweetheart a rose. In recent decades, this tradition from Catalonia has spread around the world, especially since 1995 when UNESCO adopted April 23 as the World Book Day to promote reading, publishing and copyright. In many countries, including that of mine, the day is known as The Day of the Book and the Rose, although for various local reasons the date may be different.




Two years ago, we were lucky to spend Sant Jordi in Barcelona. There were rows and rows of bookstalls, more than you could have ever imagined, with an impressive amount of rose sellers on practically every corner along the way. The stalls stretched at least from Plaça Catalunya all along La Rambla, from Passeig de Gràcia all the way down to Avinguda Portal de l’Angel and Carrer dels Arcs to Plaça Nova by the Cathedral. The red and yellow stripes of the flag of Catalonia were seen not only hanging from windows and balconies but also decorating the stalls. Street performers were entertaining the passers-by...

The pro-independence flag of Catalonia.




Sant Jordi is a public holiday very much feeling like our carnival-style May Day, except that in Barcelona we only saw happy people, no drunken ones. Everyone seemed to be there enjoying a day out pacing the streets in search for a book and a rose, or walking with those they had found from one related event to another.




The Plaça Sant Jaume in the Barri Gòtic area is another of the main venues for the Sant Jordi festivities. Sardana, the traditional dance of Catalonia, will be performed there. We missed that as we spent the sunny early afternoon by the tennis court to see our fellow countryman Jarkko Nieminen play at Barcelona Open. By the time we took our red faces to the square the sky had turned cloudy and the greatest crowds had dispersed. 

But there are other things to see there on that particular day. The palace of the Generalitat of Catalonia will be open to the public. It is a rare opportunity to see the Chapel of St George inside the palace. The chapel can otherwise be visited on two weekends each month only and even then prior booking is required. The City Hall on the opposite side of the square will also be open for visitors.

People queueing at the side entrance to visit the City Hall

The Palace of the Generalitat of Catalonia.


Back to Saint George, it is not (at least not only) the legend what has made him such a popular saint. He was one of the martyrs of early Christianity whose tale was originally brought back by the crusaders.

This much is believed to be true: Saint George was born to a Christian noble family in the Roman Palestine at about 280 AD, was orphaned in his teens and joined the troops of emperor Diocletian, who was a friend of his late father’s. In 303, the emperor extended his prosecutions of Christians to the army ordering that every soldier must sacrifice to the Roman gods. Saint George refused resisting all attempts of persuasion by the emperor and was finally sentenced to death. He underwent several sessions of torture and was beheaded on April 23, 303.



As for the fanciful legend, the dragon is believed to be a reference to paganism and the rescued princess to Christianity.

And just in case you, too, are one of those whose memory cannot be trusted, the flag with the red centred cross on a white background – such as that of England, for example – is called St George’s cross and has been associated with Saint George since the times of the crusaders. I may have known this once but if so had completely forgotten.

Flags of Catalonia, Spain and the city of Barcelona (note the two St George's crosses) on the rooftop of the City Hall.





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