by Roderick Conway Morris

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Vatican Gallery, Rome
Fra Angelico's 'Miracle of the Grain and St. Nicholas saves a ship during a storm.'

The life and lore of St. Nicholas in East and West

By Roderick Conway Morris
BARI, Italy 15 December 2006


'If God were to die, at least we would still have St. Nicholas,' according to the Russian proverb.

Patron saint of children, scholars, sailors, travelers, merchants, pawnbrokers, pirates, robbers, Russia, numerous towns and cities (mostly ports), also protector from thieves and criminals, guarantor of debts and of justice in this world and the next, St. Nicholas of Myra was probably the most popular saint of the Middle Ages. The diffusion of his cult in both East and West and the multiplicity of the circumstances in which he was called upon to intervene were certainly unequalled.

In 1087 a band of Barese mariners hijacked the saint's remains from Myra, in Lycia, in southwest Asia Minor (presentday Turkish Anatolia), and brought them back to this walled port city, making it a center of pilgrimage. Since the fall of Communism, increasing numbers of East Europeans and Russians have been making their way here, with direct flights from Moscow now operating.

The story of St. Nicholas and the extraordinary richness and variety of the art devoted to him are the themes of a feast of an exhibition, 'St. Nicholas: Artistic Splendors of East and West.' The show in the ancient citadel of Castello Svevo, curated by Michele Bacci, contains over 100 pieces from more than 50 collections and will continue until May 7. From the beginning of February, the exhibition will be joined by eight precious icons from St. Catherine's Monastery at Mount Sinai, the earliest of them from the 10th century, which are the oldest surviving painted images of the saint.

According to tradition, Nicholas, bishop of Myra and a contemporary of the Emperor Constantine, was a layman raised by universal acclaim of the townsfolk to high ecclesiastical office on account of his piety and generosity. Among the early good deeds attributed to him was secretly delivering three bags of gold coins to three girls who would otherwise have been forced into prostitution to pay for their dowries. These gifts were later symbolized by three golden balls or apples, which became the saint's standard attribute in Western art (and the pawnbroker's shop sign).

While Nicholas of Myra has an elusive, mostly legendary early history, another Nicholas, a holy miracle-working monk at the monastery of St. Sion near Myra, is documented as living between 480 and around 564.

Over time the two Nicholases became conflated, along with their respective stock of anecdotes and miracles. One of the first miracles reputedly performed by Nicholas was saving three unjustly condemned army officers from execution by appearing to the emperor in a dream.

Myra's proximity to the sea facilitated the spread of the saint's renown, and tales of his interventions in storms and apparitions to sailors, saving them from shipwreck, were carried by mariners all over the Mediterranean and beyond. The protection he was believed to offer to seafarers extended over time to all travelers, even roving robbers.

The Greek and Russian icons on display here offer a fascinating picture not only of the development of the image of the saint, but that of icon painting in general.

St. Nicholas is thought to have been the first saint to feature as the subject of a 'hagiographical icon' depicting, as well as his likeness, bordering vignettes of his life, works and miracles. This type of icon appeared in the late 12th century in locations as far apart as St. Catherine's in the Sinai desert in the East and Puglia, Italy, the region of Bari, in the West, suggesting remarkably rapid sea-borne promulgation of innovative forms.

St. Nicholas is often shown flanked by Christ, handing him the gospels, and the Virgin Mary his bishop's stole, lending him exceptional kudos. Again anomalously, he also figures regularly in depictions of the Church fathers although no writings by him were known.

The saint's cult spread into Russia along river trading routes from the earliest days of its Christianization. And it was in Russia that the process of Nicholas's virtual deification reached its apogee. Here he not only appeared in a privileged position in relation to Christ and Mary but was described as the 'Russian divinity' and the 'fourth member of the Trinity.' He was sometimes portrayed in both paintings and sculptures with a sword in one hand and miniature representations of towns in the other -- a mode of depiction unknown elsewhere -- as defender of his people against their enemies (especially by the Tartars). Indeed, the presence of images of St. Nicholas scattered across forest and steppe, in towns, churches, chapels and wayside shrines, came to define the extent of the land of Rus and to mark the limits of its borders.

Nicholas's benign authority and protection was invoked even in the next world, priests placing in the right hand of the deceased a letter addressed to the saint, vouching that the bearer was a god-fearing Orthodox Christian and imploring assistance beyond the grave for the bearer of this funerary passport.

The removal of the saint's relics from Myra to Bari was viewed very differently in the Greek and Russian spheres. The Patriarch of Constantinople -- under whose jurisdiction Kiev, then the center of Russian Christianity, still theoretically came -- saw the event as robbery. But the Russians themselves maintained that the saint had been willingly kidnapped to escape what was now Turkish-occupied territory. With astonishing speed the Russian church established in 1092 a special festival celebrating the 'Translation of the Relics of St. Nicholas to Bari.'

The arrival of the saint's bones in Bari gave an additional boost to his already widespread veneration in the West. He could act, too, as a bridge between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. An enormous 13th-century icon on loan from the Byzantine Museum in Nicosia is a palpable example of this. It was donated to a Greek church in Cyprus by a Catholic crusader called Ravendel, showing the knight himself kneeling to one side of the saint, and his wife and daughter on the other.

Among the icon's smaller vignettes above the supplicants, there are two solemn burials scenes, presumably the first of the saint in Myra and the second in Bari. There is also an illustration of the miracle of the three young student- priests, murdered by a wicked innkeeper and his wife, chopped up and pickled in brine, emerging healthy and whole from a barrel on the intervention of the saint.

In his Western guise, St. Nicholas came to be represented as a Catholic bishop, giving rise to such implausible relics as the crook and crozier (neither of which formed part of an Orthodox bishop's apparel) preserved at the San Nicolo church on the Lido in Venice (which claimed with increasing lack of conviction also to house the 'true' bones).

St. Nicholas's feast day, Dec. 6, smoothed the way to the blending of his cult with pagan winter festivities and seasonal gift-giving in northern Europe. His ancient association with children and his celebrated generosity assured his survival even in Protestant countries, notably the Netherlands (he is the patron saint of Amsterdam) where the cult of saints had been rejected by the reformers. In some places apart from the Low Countries, such as the South Tirol, Switzerland and Austria, Sint Nikolaas/Sankt Niklaus has even persisted today as the giver of winter gifts in defiance of the near hegemony of his bastard offspring Santa Claus.

In these cultures, St. Nicholas not only rewarded good children but chastised bad ones. A Dutch lithograph of 1852 here shows the bearded bishop in his full canonicals giving a terrible thrashing to a boy no doubt thankful thereafter that St. Nicholas came but once a year.

As the final section of the show commendably demonstrates, the transition from St. Nicholas to Santa Claus was far from a natural development. Although containing vestiges of Old World folklore, Santa was a New World invention closely associated with new ways of advertising and selling products. Thomas Nast in his illustrations for 'Harper's Weekly' did much to establish his now familiar form. By January 1881, Nast's bearded, twinkly-eyed, holly-sprigged, toy-bearing 'Merry Old Santa Claus' looked practically as he does today. By the end of the century he had also acquired a wife, Mrs. Claus, and an outsourced labor force of nonunionized elves working overtime in a factory in the region of the North Pole.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024