ST. NIKOLAI, NOT JOLLY OLD ST. NICHOLAS

One of the easiest icon saints to recognize is Saint Nicholas, and he is also — aside from icons of Mary and those of Jesus — perhaps the most commonly-found saint in icons. Nicholas was originally the Bishop of Myra, in Asia minor, in the 4th century.  That is all that is known about him.

However, stories and legends gathered about him and his relics over the years, and his reputation grew until it was said in Old Russia that when God grew too old and died, Saint Nicholas would take his place. Nicholas was also the “angel day” saint of the ill-fated Tsar Nicholas II. The “Angel Day” was the day on which a Russian Orthodox Christian celebrated the saint for whom he or she was named, and for Nicholas, that day was December 6th, the “Feast Day” of St. Nicholas of Myra. So one may find icons of St. Nicholas as well as of the other “name saints” of the last Russian Imperial Family.

In Russia, St. Nicholas has none of the “St. Nick/Santa Claus” associations that he acquired in the Americas through a series of interesting transformations extending from the immigrant Dutch celebration of St. Nicholas Eve to the works of Clement Moore (“The Night Before Christmas”) and the cartoonist Thomas Nast, who gave “Santa Claus” his essential American image.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Above is a well-painted image of St. Nicholas “with the life,” that is, with scenes from his life and legend, arranged in little boxes all around the border of the central image.  That central image  shows Nicholas in the center.  To the left, Jesus in a circle offers him the book of the Gospels, and to the right, Mary restores his bishop’s stole, the ornamental long band with crosses about his neck and hanging down in front.  These images of Jesus and Mary illustrate the legend that Nicholas, at the 1st Ecumenical Council, slapped the face of his opponent Arius, and was imprisoned.  Jesus and Mary appeared to him in prison, Jesus giving him the Gospel book, and Mary restoring to him his omophorion, symbol of his office as bishop.

Nicholas, in this example, holds his right hand up in blessing, using the “two-fingered” blessing position characteristic of Old Believers and their icons.  In his left hand he holds the book of the Gospels open to his usual text, a version of Luke 6:17: “At that time Jesus stood on the plain, and a multitude of his disciples … ” (VO VREMA ONO STA IISUS NA MYESTYE RAVNYE, I NAROD UCHENIK EGO....) — the introduction to the so-called “Sermon on the Plain” rather than the Sermon on the Mount. Such an icon of Nicholas “with the life” is often known as “Nicholas of Velikoretsk.”  There is, however, more than one type of St. Nicholas icon.  The most common is that of Nicholas depicted as in the Velikoretsk type but without the accompanying “from the life” scenes; aside from that there is the type known as “Nicholas of Mozhaisk.”  Here is an example of that type:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The title of this type originated in the belief that Nicholas was the miraculous defender of the city of Mozhaisk from the invading Tartars.  He holds a sword in one hand, and in the other a church, sometimes depicted as a miniature city. Yet another Nicholas type is “Nicholas of Zaraisk,” in which he stands with arms outstretched, blessing with one hand and holding the Gospels in the other. You might also encounter another type depicting a shoulder-length version of Nicholas in which his face has a severe expression and does not face the viewer directly, as Nicholas always does in his other types. Though often shown bareheaded, Nicholas is sometimes depicted wearing the “crown” of a bishop. In Greek icons, Nicholas is identified by his appearance and by inscription, “HO HAGIOS NIKOLAOS” — “The Holy/Saint Nicholas” The St. Nicholas of Eastern Orthodoxy was very popular because of the belief that he could work miracles.  Aside from that, Nicholas was particularly known as the patron saint and protector of sailors.

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