Nicholas: Patron Saint of Children

Looking back on my boyhood, I’m aware that December 6—St. Nicholas Day—functioned like a pressure relief valve for me. With anticipation building in the weeks preceding Christmas Eve, the night I would finally learn if the Kenner Girder & Panel set and GI Joe paraphernalia that I longed for were buried in the mound of gift-wrapped boxes under the tree, St. Nicholas Day helped make the long wait for December 24 more tolerable. Mom would select two of the smaller items on my Christmas wish list and give them to me on St. Nick’s Day and they would tide me over until the main event on the night before Christmas.

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1. Christkind, Bavarian National Museum, Munich (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

I didn’t know much about St. Nicholas then, but I sensed that he and Santa Claus were somehow related. Maybe they were cousins. But because I grew up in a Missouri Synod Lutheran church, I didn’t dare ask my pastor or Sunday School teachers, “Who was St. Nicholas?” Deep down, I worried that someone might tell my mom to stop giving me toys on St. Nicholas Day because Lutherans don’t believe in saints.  I didn’t know at the time just how much my mom’s gifting practice ran afoul of Martin Luther’s desire to shift emphasis in the 16th century away from St. Nicholas to the Christkind (photo 1, above), German for “Christ child.” The angelic Christkind, who brings gifts on Christmas Eve and gives its name to the popular Christkindlemarkts in Europe (photo 2), today bears little resemblance to the baby Jesus lying in a manger. And so I think it’s a shame that the Protestant Reformation prevented me from getting to know St. Nicholas better. Because he personifies the old adage that it is better to give than to receive, Nicholas probably would have made a good role model for an acquisitive American kid like me.

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2. 2015 Christkindlemarkt, Bath, England

The Saint in History and Legend   We know for sure that Nicholas was a bishop (photo 3) in fourth century Myra, a Roman town in Lycia, now part of Turkey.  Some reports place him at the great church Council of Nicaea in 325, CE but the evidence of his attendance is inconclusive. Tradition has it that Nicholas died on December 6, 343, thirty years after the Edict of Milan legalized Christianity. We also know that Italian sailors stole his bones in 1087 and moved them from Myra to Bari, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, where they now lie in the crypt of a basilica named for the saint. Aside from that, we don’t know much about his factual life story. According to Prof. Adam English, author of the Saint who would be Santa, Nicholas left us nothing in writing; no theological statements, no poems, no sermons, and no contemporary biographies.

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3. St. Nicholas, bishop, on the far right with (L-R) Sts. Laumer, Sylvester, and Ambrose, South Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France

What we have are stories—lots of stories—through which we catch a faint glimpse of a man whose personal qualities and selfless actions captured the imagination of the common folk and inspired many enduring legends about his regard for youngsters and the downtrodden.

Three Bags of Gold  The most compelling story about Nicholas, which likely led to his designation as the patron saint of children, involves three girls whose family had fallen on hard times. In one version of the story, Nicholas receives a large inheritance from his parents whose death left him orphaned as a boy. Later, as a young man, he learned that a destitute nobleman planned to sell his daughters into slavery or prostitution, as was the accepted custom at the time. The news pained Nicholas and prompted him to anonymously donate three bags of gold coins that each girl could use as a dowry. A sculpted scene at Chartres Cathedral shows Nicholas reaching through a hole in a wall to drop a bag of coins on the floor as the three distraught girls stand over their father who lies in bed (photo 4). A panel in one of the two St. Nicholas windows at Chartres depicts the saint dropping three large coins through the window as the daughters and father lie together in a large bed (photo 5).

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4. St. Nicholas Delivering Gold Coins, South Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France

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5. St. Nicholas Delivering Coins, St. Nicholas Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

The anonymous gifts, delivered on three successive nights, delighted the girls because it meant they could escape a dreadful fate. But their curious and grateful father wanted to learn the identity of the donor. So he stayed up on the third night to wait for the mystery man.  Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend describes the encounter. The father shouted, “Stop! Don’t sneak away! I want to see you!” Nicholas bolted. The man gave chase and when he caught up to Nicholas, “fell to the ground and tried to kiss his feet, but Nicholas stopped him, and made him promise never to reveal his secret until after [Nicholas’] death (photo 6).” Evidently, Nicholas was both generous and humble, and presumably the father made good on his promise.

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6. Grateful Father Kneeling before St. Nicholas, St. Nicholas Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

Why is this legend so significant? In an interview with Read the Spirit magazine [http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/adam-english/], Adam English explained, “here was a story about Nicholas anonymously giving something to these three poor girls—girls who no one else in that era would have cared about. He is truly taking the biblical command to look out for ‘the least among you’ to heart in a serious way. He does something that is purely generous and purely good—for people who weren’t the concern of society in that era—and he does it without any hope of reward.”

The story of Nicholas’ unexpected gift spread far and wide and contributed to his fame from Byzantium to western Europe and eventually beyond. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints reports that more than 500 churches in Britain alone are dedicated to St. Nicholas. Moreover, the largest annual religious pilgrimage in Russia, with 90,000 people reportedly joining the throng in 2015, follows a traditional route to the town of Velikoretsky to commemorate a peasant’s discovery in 1383 of a miraculous icon with a traditional image of St. Nicholas and eight scenes of events in his life (photo 7).

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7. St. Nicholas Starting His Learning at a Monastery, Scene from a mid-16th Century St. Nicholas of Velikoretsky Icon, Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal

Saving the Children  A second legend involving children in dire straits, which likely expresses a dark medieval fear more than it testifies to Nicholas’ innate kindness, presents the saint as the savior of three boys who had the great misfortune of crossing paths with a murderous butcher.  The butcher and his wife hack the boys to death and place them in a large vat with an eye toward selling their remains as pickled meat. Nicholas intervenes and brings the boys back to life. The murder and resurrection scenes are depicted in thirteenth century stained glass panels in Chartres Cathedral (photos 8 and 9).

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8. Boys and Butcher with Hatchet, St. Nicholas Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

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9. St. Nicholas Resurrects Boys in the Vat, St. Nicholas Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

Remarkably, this gruesome tale continued to provide subject matter for artists into modern times. You will sometimes see three boys (or adolescents) standing in a big barrel, a common attribute for St. Nicholas. A late nineteenth century window designed by the English firm of Lavers and Westlake (photo 10) at Milwaukee’s All Saints Episcopal Cathedral (photo 11)  offers an example of the iconography.

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10. St. Nicholas with Boys in a Barrel, All Saints Episcopal Cathedral, Milwaukee

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11. All Saints Episcopal Cathedral, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

A final story in this overview of how sculptors and glaziers portrayed St. Nicholas’ legends in stone and glass is the subject of yet another colorful 13th century window at Chartres Cathedral. The story apparently combines two aspects of Nicholas’ sainthood, as the patron of children and sailors. Legend has it that a boy fell from a boat into the sea. His parents called on Nicholas for help and, though the details of the rescue are vague, the saint miraculously saved him. The artist in Chartres’ workshop depicted the boy sinking as a blue demon with a grappling hook tries to snag him (photos 12 and 13, the panel at 9 o’clock in the quatrefoil).  The boy’s worried parents sit in the boat, praying, as two oarsmen look on. The next scene in the sequence shows the mother, father and boy with St. Nicholas, wearing bishop’s vestments, standing before Nicholas’ cathedra or bishop’s throne (see photo 13; the panel at 3 o’clock in the quatrefoil).

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12. Drowning Boy, St. Nicholas Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

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13. Quatrefoil with Scenes of St. Nicholas Legends, St. Nicholas Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

From Saint to Santa   After the Protestant Reformation, Nicholas drifted into the background of Advent and Christmas celebrations in most of Europe. Nevertheless, Dutch and Flemish-speaking groups kept alive the tradition of gift-giving on St. Nicholas Day eve and brought Sinterklaas, an elderly, bearded, adaptation of St. Nicholas, with them to New Amsterdam (renamed New York by the English in 1684). More than a century later, a Revolutionary War veteran named John Pintard promoted St. Nicholas as a patron saint for New York City. Then in 1809, Washington Irving published a satirical history of New York in which he mentions a jolly St. Nicholas character coming down chimneys to deliver gifts. In 1823, a poem titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas” attributed to Clement Clark Moore, appeared in the Troy, New York newspaper. It “twas the night before Christmas…” and the rest, as they say, is Santa Claus history. There were illustrations of Santa on magazine covers and eventually Santa ads in the 1930’s for Coca Cola. For more on the story about St. Nicholas and the origins of Santa Claus and about the Velikoretsky pilgrimage, visit the St. Nicholas Center’s informative website [https://www.stnicholascenter.org/].

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14. St. Nicholas Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

A Saintly Exemplar   One of the great ironies in Nicholas’ evolution from a saintly cleric to a rotund, red and white clad cultural icon who spends most of the year at the North Pole (now reportedly with an icy swimming hole in the vicinity), is that the German name for the character who supplanted him, Christkindl, has morphed in English to become “Kris Kringle,” a nickname for Santa Claus. It’s hard to keep a good man like Nicholas down! And why should we when the man took to heart Jesus’ call in Matthew’s gospel to treat “the least of these my brethren” with dignity?  St. Nicholas of Myra, legendary wonder worker and patron saint of children, personifies humane qualities that are no less pertinent—or essential—today than they were 1,673 years ago on the day he died.

Copyright 2016 by Michael Klug, mikejklug@aol.com, 12/5/2016.  

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The Mirror of Nature

Sometime around the year 1240, at about the same time that workers were putting the finishing touches on Chartres Cathedral and masons were nearing the halfway mark on a new cathedral at Amiens (photo 1), an industrious Dominican friar named Vincent of Beauvais set out to write a “compendium of all theological knowledge” known to thirteenth century Europe. In time he would compile a vast array of facts, theories, and speculations on such subjects as astronomy, botany, zoology, mathematics, medicine, and history, all based on the authority of dozens of Greek, Roman, Arabic, Jewish, and Christian writers who preceded him. The compilation came to be called the Speculum Majus, or “Great Mirror.” Vincent organized his material in three expansive volumes called the Mirror of Nature, the Mirror of History, and the Mirror of Doctrine. Writers in the fourteenth century would add the Mirror of Morals to the original set.  

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1. Amiens Cathedral, France

According to Hans Voorbij and Eva Albrecht, it took Vincent fifteen years to complete the first three volumes of the Speculum Majus.  (Visit their helpful “Vincent of Beauvais” website at http://www.vincentiusbelvacensis.eu/index.html for more background). The Great Mirror was copied many times over and, through the financial support and endorsement of King Louis IX (later St. Louis), it became a popular reference work for medieval theologians, philosophers, teachers, preachers, and cathedral builders.

Cathedral builders? Yes. Emile Male, the eminent French art historian, explained in The Gothic Image: Religious Art in the France of the Thirteenth Century that the clerics who commissioned the artwork and designed the iconography for many cathedrals did so with the idea of four divisions of knowledge in mind. Just as Vincent strove to summarize all knowledge in a comprehensive text, the church builders set out to do the same in the stone, wood, and glass of an all-encompassing sacred structure.  Male observes that “striking analogies are noticeable, for example, in the general economy of the Speculum Majus and the plan followed in the porches of the cathedral of Chartres (photo 2).”

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2. North Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France

In this article, we’ll look at how creation, the main theme of Vincent’s Mirror of Nature, appears in the art and iconography of Chartres Cathedral in France and two cathedrals in the United States. In a future post, we’ll follow Mr. Male’s lead and consider the many ways in which medieval Christians regarded flora, fauna, and phantasms as symbols for their beliefs and ideals. But for now, we’ll focus on Vincent’s starting point: the Bible’s first book.

Images of Creation   Vincent of Beauvais grouped his commentaries on nature around the six day creation story in the Book of Genesis. The Biblical account starts with the creation of light and ends with the creation of humanity. Consequently, early chapters in the Mirror of Nature treat light and the four classical elements as subjects of God’s work on the first day. Later chapters deal with plants, often in terms of their medicinal properties, as topics for the third day when God said, “Let the earth bring forth grass and the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind….” The final chapters are devoted to human anatomy and psychology, along with entries on domestic and wild animals, as subjects of the sixth day.

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3. Creation of Night & Day, North Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France

One of the most intriguing illustrations of the Biblical creation account appears on the North Porch of Chartres Cathedral. Statuettes on one of the arches depict imaginative creation scenes based on verses in the first chapter of Genesis. In one, a boy and girl walk hand in hand. The boy, holding a lamp in his left hand, leads the blind-folded girl with his right. Together they symbolize the separation of day and night on the first day, as one walks in darkness and the other in light. To their right sits God in the person of Jesus, who appears to be resting after a hard day at work (photo 3, above).

A second  scene in the creation ensemble shows two angels creating the heavens on the second day by dividing the waters above from the waters below (photo 4, lower scene). It’s based on a curious verse that belies the ancient writer’s sense that the waters above the heavens give the sky its blue color. The sculpture shows the angels in an airy space between watery waves above and below them. It’s fun to contrast this scene with an image in a modern stained glass Creation window at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City (photo 5).  It shows angels working between two fields of blue. Perhaps the statuettes at Chartres inspired the artist who designed the window in New York.

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4. Creation of the Heavens (below) and Plants (above), North Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France

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5. Creation of the Heavens, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York

A third sculpture at Chartres symbolizes the creation of the “two great lights” in the heavens on the fourth day (photo 6). In the bottom half of the photo, you’ll see an angel holding a swirling disc. It represents the sun. To the angel’s right, Jesus sits in apparent contentment as he holds a smaller disc representing the moon in his hands. The top half of the composition shows sea creatures and fowl created on the fifth day. On the left, Jesus appears to be chatting with a man who has two small protrusions jutting from his forehead. Who was with God at creation? The devil? Nope, it’s Moses! The little “horns” on his head represent rays of supernatural light. The artist saw fit to include him in this scene because tradition has it that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, including Genesis. The window representing the fifth day of creation at St. John the Divine similarly contains images of birds in flight, a school of fish, and a whale. But instead of Moses, a dove representing the Holy Spirit as the source of inspiration for scripture descends on the scene (photo 7).

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6. Creation of Moon & Sun (below); Sea Creatures and Fowl (above), North Porch, Chartres Cathedral, France

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7. Creation of Fish & Fowl, Creation Window, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York

The theme of the cosmos’ creation continues to inspire artists in modern times, including sculptor Frederick Hart. Mr. Hart conceived the three creation tympana at the Washington National Cathedral. They depict the creation of the moon, sun, and humanity out of the formless void (photos 8, 9, 10), and by their positioning above the main doorways on the cathedral’s west façade present a fundamental tenet in a core belief that cuts across denominational lines: God is with us throughout time, from the beginning.

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8. Creation of the Sun, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

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9. Creation of the Moon, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Why did Vincent call his compendium a “mirror?” I think one of his goals was to recount some of the innumerable ways in which creation reflects the plans and purpose of the Creator. What do we know of the divine plan for creation? Emile Male observed in Chartres, his book about the cathedral, that the tender images of God drawing creatures out of the void and blessing their goodness expresses the hopeful notion that “the world was created through love.”  My prayer, as  Advent and a new year approach, is that we experience deeply the love that infuses the world and reflect it fully in the way we care for creation and the creatures with whom we share it.

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10. Creation of Humanity, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Copyright 2016, by Michael Klug, 11/30/2016, mikejklug@aol.com