St. Nicholas Eve and Day, December 5th and 6th, are very popular in the Netherlands; but they are generally ignored in the United States, where St. Nicholas long ago evolved into the secular, jolly Christmas giver of gifts and resident of the North Pole, Santa Claus.
St. Nicholas is still one of the most commonly found Russian (and Greek) icon types. Here is a full-length Nicholas painted in 1897, robed as a bishop, blessing with one hand and with the Gospels in the other:
Scholars tell us that while it is likely that a real Nicholas once existed as Bishop of the town of Myra in Asia Minor (now Demre in Turkey) around the beginning of the 4th century, the rest of his story is largely an accretion of legends — in short, everything else said about Nicholas is simply unsupported and fictionalized elaboration. His relics (bones) are said to be kept at Bari in Italy. In 2009 a Turkish archeologist ask that his government request the return of the bones (taken or stolen by Italian sailors in the Middle Ages) to Turkey.
There are so many icons of Nicholas — called “Holy Nicholas the Wonderworker” — that one tires of seeing them. Nonetheless, a student of icons must know about them.
As I mentioned in a previous posting, there are three main types: Nicholas of Velikoretsk, Nicholas of Mozhaisk, and Nicholas of Zaraisk.
The “Velikoretsk” type is the one we usually see, Nicholas shown head to shoulders, or half-length, or more rarely (as above) full length. Jesus is often depicted in a circle on one side, presenting Nicholas with the Gospels, and Mary on the other, presenting him the bishop’s stole (omophorion in Greek):
These depictions of Jesus and Mary originate in the story (for which there is no evidence) that St. Nicholas was present at the 1st Ecumenical Council, the Council of Nicaea. Later, an additional detail was added to the legend. At that Council, Nicholas is said to have been so irritated by Arius, leader of the opposition, that he slapped him in the face. Arius complained to the Emperor Constantine, who had Nicholas removed and imprisoned. While in prison Jesus and Mary appeared to him; Jesus gave Nicholas the Gospel book and Mary restored his omophorion, the sign of his office as bishop. This detail seems to have been added to the legend near the end of the 14th century. That “slapping” scene is briefly described in the 18th century Greek painter’s manual of Dionysios of Fourna, as part of the iconography of the 1st Ecumenical Council.
Less common than the basic “Velikoretsk” type are icons of that type surrounded by standard scenes from the life and legend of Nicholas, as in this example:
The second type of Nicholas icon one is likely to encounter is “Nicholas of Mozhaisk,” as in this interesting example, which, atypically, also includes four scenes from the “life.”
Here is another example of the “Mozhaisk” type:
And third, there is the “Nicholas of Zaraisk” type, in which Nicholas is shown standing with arms raised out to the sides, with the Gospel book in one hand and the other in a sign of blessing, as in this icon pattern (reversed):
As already mentioned, some icons show Nicholas “with the life,” that is, with standard scenes from his tale. Let’s take a look at seven separate panel icons showing some of them:
1. The birth of Nicholas:
2. The baptism of Nicholas:
3. Nicholas brought for education:
4. The consecration of Nicholas as bishop:
5. Nicholas throws a bag of money through a window at night as dowry for three poor young women, so they might marry:
6. Nicholas rescues three men condemned to execution:
7. Nicholas restores life to a child drowned in the Dniepr River:
This icon depicts Nicholas in the “Nicholas of Mozhaisk” form, but with two added scenes at the sides of Nicholas saving the child drowning in the Dnieper River at left, and at right the child returned to his parents:
There are quite a number of possible additional “life” scenes found in this or that icon of Nicholas, so here is a general listing of a few of the most prominent, including some already mentioned:
The birth of Nicholas, the baptism of Nicholas, the healing of a crippled woman, Nicholas brought for education, consecration as deacon and as bishop, driving a demon out of a well, appearing to the sleeping Emperor Constantine, rescuing three men from imprisonment, rescuing the drowning Demetrios, giving gold for the dowry of three young women to save them from prostitution, the three men and the whale, saving a boy abducted by Saracens, the death of Nicholas, the tomb of Nicholas and translation (moving) of his relics.
Here is another icon with a central image of Nicholas, surrounded by scenes from his life:
They are to be read clockwise, from upper left:
The birth of Nicholas;
The baptism of Nicholas;
The healing of the blind woman:
Nicholas learning his letters;
Nicholas consecrated deacon;
Nicholas consecrated bishop;
Nicholas saving the drowning boy;
The death of Nicholas.
As with other major saints, one also finds icons of Nicholas in the iconostasis form, showing him turned toward what would be a central image of the enthroned Jesus — that is, in the Deisis form, beseeching for favors on behalf of those who pray to Nicholas:
In addition to the main types of Nicholas icons, there is another one should know. It is an image of Nicholas with his face turned slightly to the left (the “sinister” side), but with unusually large eyes looking to the right. This type — commonly called Nikola Otvratnuiy (Никола Отвратный) — “Nicholas the Turner” — arose among the Old Believers, and appears first near the end of the 18th century.
Any old icon of this type you see will be an Old Believer icon. In this type, the face is generally much larger than usual, leaving little space between it and the border. It commonly has a severe, angry look. The blessing hand may or may not be seen. When it is seen, the fingers will form the distinctive “Old Believer” sign of blessing — not that of the State Church. This type, with its rather threatening expression, has a particular reputation among old believers for repelling demons, misfortune, and all kinds of “filth.” Отвращать (otvrashchat) in Russian means to “ward off,” “avert,” “turn away,” so this “Turning” (Отвратный ) Nicholas “turns away” anything evil, in Old Believer tradition.
I have mentioned elsewhere that the common text found on the Gospel book held by Nicholas in Russian icons (when there is a text) is Luke 6:17, or at least the beginning of it:
VO VREMYA ONO STA ISUS NA MESTE RAVNE I NAROD OUCHENIK EGO I MNOZHESTVO MNOGO LIUDEI OT VSEYA IOUDEI I IEROUSALIMA I POMORIYA TYRSKA I SIDONSKA….
“At that time Jesus stood on a level place and the group of his disciples and a multitude of many people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon….”
Now one may ask, why that text, given that it has no obvious connection to Nicholas. The answer is that in the liturgy for the Feast of St. Nicholas in the Russian Orthodox Church, the Gospel reading generally used for that day is Luke 6:17-23.
One could write a thick book about the legendary history of Nicholas, but this should be enough for a quick introduction to his icons.