Every year the festival of Sant Jordi fills the city with books and roses, with hordes of people of all ages taking to the city’s streets and public places in a festive atmosphere, even though the day is not currently a public holiday. Barcelona, like the rest of the country, celebrates Catalonia’s patron. However, the folklorist Joan Amades asserts in his work that contrary to expectations, historically this saint’s day was not as popular or revered as others. Maybe this was because it was linked more to the nobility.
Not too much is known about the life of the saint, even though there are various legends. Miquel Batllori’s book Sant Jordi a Barcelona employs historical rigour to explain that the saint was “An officer in the Roman army, born in Capadocia, who died at the start of the 4th century rejecting a decree by the emperor Diocletian which ordered homage to be paid to pagan gods”. Batllori claims that not long after that, his death was already revered, explaining that “In the 4th century, Saint John Chrysostom named him Prince of Martyrs, and Saint Gregory of Dekapolis described him as an illustrious and excellent martyr”.
Amades affirms that Sant Jordi was the patron of the Catalan cavalry, and that “Barcelona’s nobility celebrated the festive day with jousting and competitions and games with all sorts of arms in El Born. This gave the festival an aristocratic feel, shifting it away from people”. Even so, reverence to Sant Jordi became more commonplace and on 22 April 1378 the king announced that a relic from the saint would be moved, and called on the Consell de Cent [governing institution of the era] to declare the day a public holiday to give the occasion greater solemnity. Eighty years on, explains the folklorist, “In 1459, the Catalan Courts met at Barcelona cathedral confirming the municipal agreement mentioned and extending it to the rest of Catalonia”.
Amades uses a popular expression to confirm the low popularity the saint had, “It’s as rare as Sant Jordi’s chapels, as there’s only one in each diocese, used to describe something as very strange”. Nowadays, however, things are very different. The cited book, Sant Jordi a Barcelona, edited in 2014 by Barcelona City Council and including photos by Consol Bancells and texts by Narcís Sayrach, brings together hundreds of images of the saint from around the city.
Among the traditions relating to the patron saint of Catalonia, Amades explains that “The Generalitat made all kinds of musicians go and play in public places and streets in order to propagate a festive atmosphere. One memory is the cobla ensemble of blind musicians who played in the Palau de la Generalitat in the middle of the last century [referring to the 19th century]”. According to the folklorist, around that time the musical tradition was lost and gave way to the rose fair at the Pati dels Tarongers courtyard.