Monday, 23 April 2007

Sequential George

Before it became economical to distribute printed comic strips in the eighteenth, and more especially nineteenth, centuries, the best way to get a lot of people to read stories told in sequences of pictures was to put them on display in a public place.

Many of those public places were owned by the Church, and in Western Europe the Catholic Church had a rich tradition of using, to borrow Will Eisner’s preferred expression, “sequential art” to tell stories from the Bible and the lives of the Saints.

Today is the Saint’s day of England’s favourite Anatolian (or Libyan, or whatever), St George. There are lots of tellings of St George’s story in pictures, and some of them are collected in Samantha Riches’s book St George: Hero, Martyr and Myth.

Over the centuries, the St George legend accumulated a number of apparently incompatible elements, requiring him, in some versions, to be killed twice. In these first three panels (of six) from the La Selle Retable, an English alabaster altarpiece now to be found in Normandy, St George is brought back to life by the Virgin Mary after his first death, armed and sent off to fight the dragon.

In the subsequent three panels, George is put on trial by the Emperor Dacian for refusing to worship the old Roman gods, tortured, and executed. It was this martyrdom, rather than his wyrm-slaying heroism, that earned George his sainthood. Many sequential artists seem to have dwelled lovingly on the torture scenes, as in the fifteenth-century stained glass windows of St George’s Church, Stamford, Lincolnshire, recorded here in the sketches made by William Sedgwick around 1641.

The windows themselves no longer exist, for if the artists worked with the glee of an Al Feldstein or Graham Ingels, then the seventeenth century equivalents of Dr Wertham were a lot more thorough and successful than he ever was.

from Samantha Riches St George: Hero, Martyr and Myth, Sutton Publishing, 2000

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