Postcard from Ferrara, Italy: Cathedral honors the dragon-slayer

Saint George is the patron saint of Ferrara, so, first, here’s a wandering tale about the saint.

Collecting water for the day was a major chore, but a fierce dragon guarding your water supply really complicates matters. The wise villagers in a kingdom somewhere, perhaps Lebanon or Libya, placated the beast by releasing two sheep to it before fetching pails of water. But the dragon consumed sheep faster than the villagers could raise them, so soon their supply was exhausted.

Some “wise” person, obviously a male, determined the best way to appease the dragon was to feed him young women. A lottery was held to see which young woman would become his supper first, and the beautiful daughter of the king drew the short straw.

The villagers took her to meet her fate, tying her near the dragon’s lair. Fortunately, just in the nick of time, along came a brave Roman soldier who heard the princess cry out for help. The brave soldier slew the dangerous beast and freed the princess.

This tale was one picked up during the Crusades and embellished by soldiers returning home. The hero was reputed to be Saint George, a patron saint of soldiers, a saint who helped protect them not only during warfare but also from diseases they might pick up along the way, such as the plague or syphilis.

The legend of Saint George and the dragon has persisted through thousands of years, mainly because it is such a fairy-tale-type story. Although to truly fit into the Disney-type mold by which many of us were shaped, shouldn’t George then have married the beautiful princess and lived happily ever after?

There are lots of hard-to-believe stories of saints, but this one is considered more legend than fact. As one early pope purportedly said, George was included in the group of saints “whose names are justly revered among men, but whose actions are known only to God.”

But George did earn his sainthood. He became a valued officer serving in the guard of Emperor Diocletian. The emperor, however, demanded all his soldiers renounce Christianity. George steadfastly resisted. The emperor sentenced him to death via several brutal methods we will not describe, but, somehow, George was revived three times. Finally, he was beheaded in April of the year 303.

The grand Duomo is dedicated to Saint George. The façade was begun in the 12th century but took another century or so to complete. Some of its treasures have been moved to the Museo della Cattedrale nearby.

The cathedral with its spacious plazas in front and on one side is an integral part of daily interactions among citizens in Ferrara constantly crisscrossing them. At some point long ago, a shopping arcade of inferior architecture was attached to one side. Fortunately, the arcade is only one story high, so much of the cathedral’s details are preserved for viewing, including the wonderfully funky pairs of wave-like columns running along the side.

These photos are of the Cathedral and some of the contents of its museum.

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