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Yesterday’s post concerning Saint Nicholas ended on a somber note as the saint, well, he died and was buried in a spooky sarcophagus in a basilica in Asia Minor. Ordinarily such an ending represents a comprehensive conclusion to a biography. Yet in the centuries that followed his death, stories began to spread that Saint Nicholas was up and about, performing miracles. The miraculous tales of Saint Nicholas are from the Byzantine era and they possess that era’s powerful (and unnerving) combination of classical Roman mythography and medieval hagiography. Some of these tales were post-dated to involve the living Nicholas—like the stories where he healed a woman’s withered hand when he was a child, fought with pirates as a young man, or cast a group of demons out of a funereal cypress tree. However other miracles performed by Saint Nicholas seem to take place in a timeless setting where the Saint acquired the ability to teleport and possessed full powers over human affairs, including life and death.
Saint Nicholas so often ended up fighting pirates, storms, and the capricious ocean that some scholars think that his hagiographers might have borrowed their stories from Neptune myths. In one story he teleported a Greek sailor out of the middle of a storm raging in the Black Sea. In a different tale he rescued a mariner by means of a helpful whale. Sometimes he manumitted slaves by whisking them across oceans away from the hands of cruel emirs. Indeed, even today Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors. Yet an even more important aspect of his nature was coming to the fore: in more and more stories he gave away gifts to those in need (frequently under cover of anonymity) or looked after children in peril.
The two myths which have the most impact on his future career—as a gift-giver and benefactor to children are intensely harrowing and awful. They both have the surreal panic of dark fairytales or vivid nightmares (or Byzantine history!). So if you are a child (in which case, what are you doing here?) or easily impressionable you might want to relax with some fluffy creatures and skip the rest of this post.
Three girls of an impoverished noble family were left orphaned when their father died. Since the father expired in the middle of uncertain business affairs, they were left destitute and without dowries. The only way for the distraught maidens to make ends meet was to find recourse in the oldest profession. As they wept and prepared to enter a life of prostitution, a glowing hand appeared in the window and cast three balls of gold into the house. It was Saint Nicholas giving away princely sums of gold in order to prevent three little girls from being turned out.
The most intense miracle performed by Saint Nicholas has curious parallels with the story of the three girls. Three wealthy little boys were traveling through the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor. They came to an inn with a treacherous and avaricious owner. In the middle of the night the innkeeper stabbed the children to death and stole their money and clothes. Then he butchered the bodies and put the severed pieces in salt so he could sell the children as hams (thus simultaneously turning a profit and disposing of the corpses). For several nights it seemed he had gotten away with his horrifying act, but then with a crack of thunder, Saint Nicholas appeared in the inn. The Saint dispensed with the innkeeper who was heard from no more. Hastening to the curing house, Nicholas opened up the salt casks and tenderly reassembled the pickled pieces of the unlucky boys into whole bodies. Lifting his arms he summoned divine power to reanimate the murdered children and send them on their way (unscathed, I guess, although one would imagine that being dismembered and brined would leave some post-traumatic stress).
These intense miracle-stories traveled through the near east and beyond. Nicholas became one of the most famous saints—one of the very special dead who serve as divine intermediaries to the numinous in medieval Christianity (and up to this very day in Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity). As proselytizing clerics made their way into pagan Germany, Scandinavia, and Slavic lands, they spread tales of the wonder-working bishop who gave gifts and healed children. After hundreds of years of performing miracles in the middle east it would not seem like things could get stranger for Saint Nicholas, but in the German forests and Alpine mountains he was due to transform again.
Born in Siena, Simone Martini was a painter whose masterful technique, elegance, and narrative themes greatly influenced the development of the International Gothic painting style. Completed sometime around 1324, this is one of his masterpieces, a three panel altarpiece (with two additional tiny tondo portraits of holy elders of the church) which illustrates the saintliness of Agostino Novello, a thirteenth century Sicilian nobleman and scholar who renounced earthly life after being left for dead on a battlefield. In an attempt to avoid public life, Agostino joined the Order of Saint Augustine–but a former schoolmate from the University of Bologna recognized him and informed influential bishops of Agostino’s learning. Agostino was dragged into the scholarly life of the church where he rose to become Pope Nicholas IV’s confessor and Grand Penitentiary.
By the time of this painting, some of the real details of Agostino’s life were being supplanted by miraculous stories, here arrayed in four small story panels around the central portrait of the holy man.
The stories are painted with delightful detail and elegance. The narrative flow of each tale is immediately obvious. In the top left corner Agostino appears like spiderman, hanging upside down from a wall to revive a child who has been mauled by a creature which seems to be a cross between a Labrador retriever and a dragon. The bottom left panel finds the renowned scholar swooping out of heaven to catch a falling child. Continuing to the bottom right corner, Saint Agostino pops through a hole in existence to heal/resurrect a baby which has fallen from a badly constructed hanging crib (child safety seems to have been a major problem in Medieval Italy). The top right story-picture shows Agostino aiding a praying knight whose comrade is trapped beneath a fallen steed.
The center panel shows the Saint standing serenely in a grove of stately trees which are filled with singing birds. He holds a book as an angel whispers divine truth in his ear—a lovely metaphor for scholarship.