Three Legends of St. Nicholas – Gerard David

I appreciate that I haven’t gotten particularly Christmassy just yet.  This could be due to the fact that I take absolute umbrage that Christmas hits the shops around October.  Personally I think that this then takes away from the excitement and joy that is supposed to be felt with this time of year, making it just a marketing regime rather than either a religious celebration (if you are that way inclined) or just a nice time to spend with your loved ones and friends.

Regardless, we are now only a couple of weeks away from the big day, so I thought I would look at some of the Christmas iconography in art (albeit I may have missed the actual days for some of them due to my own stubbornness) and maybe give you a little more insight in to some of the backgrounds and traditions.

Hopefully you will all know that Santa didn’t just appear out of nowhere, and he has roots in the legends of St. Nicholas.

David presents us with three panels (this was actually part of a larger alter piece, but these three now are displayed in the Scottish National Gallery, whereas the others have been  sent off to be displayed in America) showing miracles which were attributed to St. Nicholas’s life.

David was an artist from the Netherlands, and this shows through his art work, in a truly Dutch style painting technique, with porcelain faced figures and soft colouring, making an almost dream like serenity to the work.  David’s technique demonstrates his mastery over the depiction of light and shadow alongside his remarkable colour palette.

In the three panels we can see three legends of St. Nicholas.  The first shows the new born Nicholas standing and praying.  While this may be an over estimation of Nicholas’s abilities it is symbolic, as it is recorded that he was a devout Christian from a very early age, and when his parents died of an epidemic he was brought up by his uncle, who just happened to be the bishop of Patara.  As a young child, Nicholas was known to observe fasts and it was this behaviour which lead him in to being ordained by his uncle.

The second panel shows St. Nicholas peering through a widow of a poor family, this was not an act of peeping tomery, it was in fact his preference for giving anonymous gifts, in this case, leaving presents of gold which would pay for the three daughter’s dowries, meaning that they would not be left destitute.  This is probably the most well know of the legends and the beginnings of Santa.

The third panel shows St. Nicholas resurrecting three murdered boys.  This happened during the time of a great famine and a local butcher had lured the boys in and killed them, putting them in a barrel to cure with the intension of selling them as ham.  St. Nicholas witnessed this deed, and resurrected the boys.

All in all, St. Nicholas was a bit of a dude.  Gifting people with no thanks, resurrecting dead boys and a devout faith, but what you might not know about him is that he is also the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers and students.

David’s panels really capture the essence of this thoughtful and miraculous saint, far removed from today’s iconography of the red suit and the Coca Cola truck, but much more interesting in my opinion.

What do you think of St. Nick? Why not tell me in the comments?


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