In 1505, the Renaissance artist Raphael Sanzio lavished his skill on a subject rather out-of-date: the legendary dragon slayer St. George, an early Christian saint generally associated with the martial and chivalric spirit of the Crusades. In his large painting of the subject at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the holy warrior is shown from behind, galloping on a white steed, his lance pointed downward toward a writhing, russet-colored dragon – part snake, part lion, part bat. The grateful Princess Sabra kneels in the background, hands clasped. But more alluring than the princess in her rose-colored gown is the gleaming armor of the knight himself, in smoldering gray-blue steel, catching the clear light (Raphael was a master of clear light) and acting as a body-halo at once crepuscular and bright.1

There is armor, and there is armor. The Apostle Paul wrote of “the full armor of God,” and this was (of course) a figurative armor. It was a defense against dark powers (“the devil’s schemes”), and it was fashioned not of steel but of qualities like truth, righteousness, and peace.2It is well known that St. George’s brilliant armor recalls the spiritual armor of St. Paul: the dragon he slew was truly demonic, after all, having demanded human sacrifice. And St. George was often paired with another armored saint, the sainted angel Michael, the acknowledged terror of demons. (Indeed, in 1503, Raphael had painted small pictures of St. George and St. Michael and hinged them together to make a sort of picture book, or diptych.3)

There are other kinds of armor, though – kinds less beneficial. St. Paul’s armor guarded against dark spirits, and St. George’s guarded against darkness in the flesh, but there are some types of armor that guard against truth and love. “All things are lawful for me,” Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians, “but not all things are helpfuI”4 Perhaps the same is true of armor, whether spiritual or actual. What is the bad armor that does not help? It’s the armor that avoids the fight, the armor we hide inside, so that we seem nothing but hard, glinting planes – headless and heartless, unreachable by pleading eyes and truths that strike. This was the armor of Pontius Pilate, who declared: “I am innocent of this man’s blood!”5

Yet the acceptance of guilt as a principle, without nuance – the complete baring of the chest to every thrashing assault of the addled conscience – is not quite right. Thus, a new metaphor might help: also made of steel is the needle, and needles are made to pierce and be pierced. But to pierce them rightly (to thread them so their piercing mends and creates) requires exactitude – and it’s a truly fine-eyed needle we thread here. For in our rush to be anti-Pilates we are all too prone to take on guilt that doesn’t belong to us, apologizing for everything (even the failure to answer a text) while waving about the figurative blood on our hands. When it comes to our own internal armor, it seems, we don’t know when to remain protected and when to shed the steel. We accept lashings never meant for us while refusing the piercing that heals.

But we can learn a lesson from Pilate. For his attention was faultlessly trained on the One Thing that always pierces the soul justly, that always summons a true guilt, whose eyes plead with the most efficient and touching devastation: that is, the beating Heart of God in the person of his Son, all tender flesh and exposed innocence. If ever one needed armor to hide the most depthless guilt, Pilate did. And if we aim to be anti-Pilates it must be first in this regard: we must take the dying Christ – and Him alone – in our shaking hands. We must bare our souls to the tragedy of His squashed tenderness. He was the baby bird fallen from its nest. He was the butterfly brutally un-winged. He was the spotted fawn struck from his mother by steel-faced hunters. He suffered first and most from our stone-heartedness (“slain from the foundation of the world”6), and all other injustice stems from the outrage he bore.

He alone, indeed, was armorless inside and out. Because he was perfectly innocent, he did not need to hide behind the steel of a stricken conscience; he was open and empathetic to all suffering. Because he came to bear all of our pains, he also refused (in a way) St. Paul’s armor, exposing himself to demons everywhere peering out from tormented eyes. And of course, though he might have summoned all the heavenly hosts to save his body from death, he refused that celestial armor, also. Thus, he was pinioned high, rarest specimen of beauty slain, for all to behold, from heaven down to hell.

In his softness (oh, divine pincushion!) he earns our softness, first and most. So let us bare ourselves initially to him, and whisper our soft regrets, before we bare ourselves to anything else. Then he will sort our guilt and shame, and make our wounds run clean, and bandage us up, so we can put on the true armor of the angels.

Footnotes

  1. https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.28.html (National Gallery stuff is public domain, if you want to use it as your hero image)
  2. Ephesians 6:10-17
  3. For the two halves, both at the Louvre, see: https://www.pop.culture.gouv.fr/notice/joconde/000PE026975 and https://www.pop.culture.gouv.fr/notice/joconde/000PE026974
  4. 1 Cor 6:12
  5. Matthew 27:24
  6. Rev 13:8

Katie Kresser

Seattle Pacific University
Katie Kresser is Professor of Art History at Seattle Pacific University.