by Roderick Conway Morris

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Basilica di San Nicola, Bari
Basilica of St Nicholas, Bari

Saint of All Ages

By Roderick Conway Morris
BARI 1 March 2007


'His clothes are drenched in brine, his beard drips with seawater, and his brow is covered in perspiration due to his continual efforts to reach sinking ships to save them from the angry waves.' Such is the lively picture of St Nicholas recorded by an anthologist of popular Greek calendar customs, contrasting somewhat with the venerable stasis of his painted images in Orthodox churches.

Protecting sailors from shipwreck was and still is one of the saint's primary occupations. Even today no Greek vessel would put to sea without his portrait on board. But over time he also became the patron saint of travellers in general, children, scholars, merchants, pawnbrokers, pirates, robbers, Russia and many towns and cities. One of the earliest miracles attributed to him was the saving of three Byzantine army officers from unjust execution. His intercession in judicial matters was accordingly sought both in this world and at the Judgment Seat in the next. Another was his secret gift of three bags of gold for the dowries of three young maidens, who otherwise would have been forced into prostitution. This led to his association with gift-giving, especially to children. The three bags of gold came to be stylised in Western art as three golden balls, providing pawnbrokers with their sign (St Nick also being invoked as a guarantor-witness of debts).

The St Nicholas who was to become probably the most ubiquitous single saint of the Middle Ages in both East and West was in reality a conflation of two Nicholases, both of whom had their origins in the region of Myra in south-western Asia Minor. One was a semi-mythical bishop alleged to have lived at the time of Constantine; the other, a miracle-working monk of the late 5th and 6th centuries. The vast number of tasks the fused St Nicholas undertook, the fervent devotion he attracted, and the multiple stories and traditions that surrounded him produced an extraordinarily rich and varied range of artistic representations, as is revealed in this splendid exhibition of over 100 pieces from over 50 collections, curated by Michele Bacci.

The popularity of the cult of St Nicholas among mariners and boatmen was a major factor in its rapid diffusion. Initially sailing from port to port, the saint's image and legend was carried inland via the river trade, penetrating even into the most remote and darkest corners of the steppes and forest of Rus. Nicholas became inseparably identified with the process of the Christianisation of the Slavs, being adopted as the patron saint of all Russians, and acquiring the almost blasphemous descriptions of 'the Russian divinity' and 'the fourth member of the Trinity'.

In Russian icons Nicholas is uniquely shown flanked by Christ and the Virgin, the former conferring upon him in person the gospels, the latter his bishop's stole. Without having penned a line, he joined the intellectual ranks of the Church Fathers. In the East he was the subject of the first-known 'hagiographical' icons, illustrating in cartoon-strip form around his image his life and myriad miracles – an early example of which features among the eight precious works lent by St Catherine's in Mount Sinai (which have the earliest surviving likenesses of the saint, dating back to the 10th century). In the West, he was the inspiration for an astonishing 13th-century chasuble (on loan from Vienna) embroidered with almost 40 vividly coloured scenes of his life and works.

In 1087, a raiding party of nearly 100 sailors from Bari landed near Myra (which was by then in the hands of the Seljuk Turks), and carried off Nicholas's putative remains. The benefits to a city of possession of a first-class saint during this period could hardly be exaggerated. The Patriarch of Constantinople deplored the robbery of Nicholas, but Russians supported the kidnapping on the grounds that the saint had made known his desire to be rescued from Turkish captivity. By 1092, the Russian Church had instituted a new annual festival celebrating the 'Translation of the Relics of St Nicholas to Bari'. Thus the port became a place of pilgrimage for both Catholics and Orthodox, a phenomenon that has been dramatically revived since the fall of communism, with ever greater numbers of Slavic pilgrims arriving and direct flights from Russia to Bari.

The saint's feast day, 6 December, falls during a period of older pagan winter festivities, which facilitated his recruitment by the Church to preside over new Christian celebrations. Even after the Reformation he maintained this role among both Catholics and Protestants, notably in Germanic countries, where Sankt Niklaus (in the Netherlands Sint Nicolaas) continued to reward well-behaved children and apply his stinging cane to naughty ones. In these lands memories of his eastern Mediterranean roots still lingered, the saint himself often depicted with a swarthy complexion, or accompanied by a blackamoor manservant.

The closing section of the show tackles the transformation of Sankt Niklaus into Santa Claus, an egregious case of identity theft. For the fact is that this Father Christmas was entirely a 19th-century American invention, whose name was just about the only link with religious and European traditions. The Harper's Weekly illustrator Thomas Nast played a leading part in defining Santa's visual characteristics, and from the outset this bogus arriviste was heavily employed as an advertising image to promote shopping and the pushing of products.

First published: The Spectator