Scenes from the life of St Nicholas


St Nicholas (270 - 343)  is well known as the inspiration for Santa Claus. The real St. Nicholas lived an eventful life (and, as it happens, an eventful time after he was dead) but, sadly, chimneys and reindeer do not feature. 

  The tradition says that Nicholas was both wealthy and generous. The best known image of him shows him dropping gold through a window: see the picture by Fra Angelico below left.  This relates to a story of a poor nobleman who decided to prostitute his three daughters as he couldn't afford dowries. 

   There are many other stories attached to this saint. He saved a ship from shipwreck, and miraculously created corn during a famine. The two most obscure stories seem to be the ones illustrated by Margarito. There are a number of cycles showing the life of Nicholas, but I haven't found the strange story of the oil anywhere else. The story of the liberation of the Innocents appears occasionally, as in another painting by Fra Angelico, (below right). It certainly shows bravery on the part of Nicholas, but I would question the National Gallery's use of the word miraculous. 

he story of Nicholas rumbles on. In the 11th century, sailors stole his relics from Myra (present day Demre in Turkey) where he had been bishop. They took them to Bari, where they are today, which is why he is known as Nicholas of Bari. The relics, apparently, gave off a healing liquid that smelt of rosewater, and continued to do so after the translation to Bari. Wikipedia, (perhaps tongue in cheek), says that this still happens, and claims that the liquid is available for purchase in a nearby shop.  All major credit cards accepted. 

  In 2009 the Turkish government demanded the return of the relics.  they were still in Bari on our visit in 2014.

Vatican, Pinacoteca

Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria, Perugia

  Extract from The Golden Legend:
People in that region had once worshipped idols, and even in the time of St Nicholas some peasants practiced pagan rituals under a tree dedicated to the evil goddess Diana. To end this practice, Nicholas had the tree cut down. This infuriated the old enemy. She brewed up a strange oil that would burn on water or stone. She then took the form of a nun, and appeared next to a ship carrying people intending to visit the saint.
     'I wanted to visit the holy man too, but that is not possible.' She said. ‘Could you take this oil to his church and paint its walls in my memory.’ She then vanished.
    Then another boat appeared, full of honest people. One of them had the appearance of Saint Nicholas.
    ‘What did that woman say, and what did she give you?’ he asked.
    The travellers in the boat told him what had happened.
   ‘That was Diana!’ he said. ‘If you need proof, throw that oil on to the water.’
   As soon as they did, a great fire took hold, and burned for hours.
   ‘When the travellers finally reached Nicholas, they said ‘You were the one who appeared to us and saved us from the schemes of the evil one.’

  At this time the Roman emperor sent three princes to deal with a rebellious tribe. Unfavourable winds meant that they had to put in at an Adriatic port. Nicholas was anxious that their soldiers should not rob the local people, so he invited the princes to his house.
   Meanwhile, the local Roman consul, tempted by a bribe, had ordered the beheading of three innocent soldiers. As soon as Nicholas heard of this he asked his guests to come with him to the place of execution. The condemned men were already on their knees. Their faces covered, with the executioner holding his sword above their heads. Nicholas threw himself at the executioner and snatched the sword from his hand. He untied the innocent men and led them away safe and sound.

     Maybe there is a clue in the Diana story as to why this rather exciting episode was not illustrated by later artists. Christianity orthodoxy denied the existence of pagan gods, but one is all too real here, despite a rather feeble attempt to identify her with the devil. 

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