image of England's favourite saint
Bellerophon, mounted on Pegasus, dispatches a chimera
dining-room mosaic dating from AD260 in the city of Palmyra
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
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
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
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.