Today we will look at two Cretan icons of Nikolaos/Nicholas of Myra. Here is the first, from the 16th century:
As you can see, it shows Nicholas seated on a throne, and is “with the life,” that is, with scenes from his legend.
Here is a closer look at the central image:
We see the usual images of Jesus at left, presenting Nicholas with the Gospels, and Mary at right, giving him his bishop’s stole (omophorion).
It is important to note that the Greek inscription on the book differs from the standard text common on Russian icons of Nicholas, which would be from Luke 6:17: “At that time Jesus stood on the plain, and a multitude of his disciples … ”:
Instead, it reads (left page first, then right page):
Κ[ΥΡΙΟ]C ΕΓΩ ΕΙ-
ΜΙ Ἡ ΘΥΡΑ
Ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ θύρα· δι’ ἐμοῦ ἐάν τις εἰσέλθῃ, σωθήσεται, καὶ εἰσελεύσεται καὶ ἐξελεύσεται, καὶ νομὴν εὑρήσει.
Ego eimi he thura: di emou ean tis eiselthe, sothesetai, kai eiseleusetai kai exeleusetai, kai nomen euresei.
It is from John 10: 9:
” I am the door: by me if anyone enters in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.”
That different text is the important part of today’s posting, but for the sake of completeness we should take a quick look at the “life” scenes in the border of the icon:
First is the birth of Nicholas:
Second, Nicholas brought to be educated:
Third, Nicholas is consecrated as a bishop:
Fourth, Nicholas gives a bag of money to a father in debt, so that his three daughters may have dowries for marriage, and not have to prostitute themselves:
Now we come to a group of scenes from what is generally considered to be the oldest part of the St. Nicholas legends: the tale of the three byzantine generals.
It is said that Emperor Constantine sent three army generals to subdue an uprising in Phrygia. They sailed from Constantinople to Andriake, which was the seaport for the town of Myra, where Nicholas was bishop. Their names were Nepotianus, Ursus, and Eupoleonis.
Some of the soldiers from the army went to buy food while the ships were docked. Unfortunately, some looting took place by men pretending to be soldiers from the ships — and so the rioting crowd blamed the innocent soldiers from the ships for the thefts.
Nicholas, in Myra, heard about the riots at the port and went to Andriake to try to calm things down. He talked with the army officers, and while they were in discussion, report came to Nicholas that the three innocent sailors were about to be executed for the looting. Nicholas hurried to the place, and found the three men kneeling with hands bound, about to be beheaded by sword. Nicholas grabbed the sword from the executioner, threw it down, released the men, and led them away.
Here is the scene of Nicholas grasping the executioner’s sword:
Nicholas berated and threatened the official who had unjustly condemned the men, but pardoned him after the three generals asked for mercy on his behalf. Then the generals sailed off to Phrygia with their army, where they subdued the uprising, then returned to Constantinople, where they were greatly feted and honored.
An official jealous of the honor shown the generals conspired with the Prefect Ablabius, who was offered a great amount of gold to make a false accusation against the generals to the Emperor, accusing them of planning to overthrow Emperor Constantine. They were arrested and thrown into prison. Then Ablabius went to Constantine and told him that the generals should be executed to prevent further conspiracy. Constantine ordered them to be killed that night. Here are the imprisoned men:
When the three generals were informed of their death sentence, they prayed for the intercession of St. Nicholas. That evening St. Nicholas appeared to Emperor Constantine as he slept, telling him to release the three innocent generals at once, or Nicholas would have the Emperor overthrown and his body given to animals to eat. That is the scene shown here:
Then Nicholas appeared to the Prefect Ablabius as he slept, telling him to release the men, and threatening him and his family with death if he refused, as depicted in this scene:
The three generals were taken from the prison to the Emperor, who asked them if they knew of anyone named Nicholas. They affirmed their knowledge of the bishop of Myra, and all three again began to pray for the intercession of Nicholas and their release as innocent men. The Emperor told them they owed their lives to Nicholas. Then he gave the three a golden book of the Gospels as well as other valuable church objects to take to Nicholas as a gift. That is the scene shown here:
And here are the three generals bringing the Emperor’s gifts to Nicholas:
Now as you may know, part of the strategy of Christianity at the time when the Roman Empire was still polytheistic, was to spread the notion that the gods of the polytheists were not gods at all, but rather demons; and that in venerating the images of the gods, the people were really venerating demons. The legend of Nicholas says that he went about destroying the polytheist temples, where the demons would flee and the images of the old gods would fall. Here is the scene of Nicholas destroying the idols:
Here is the scene illustrating the legend of the ship that was caught in a storm at sea. The sailors prayed to Nicholas, and he appeared, saving the ship from sinking and the sailors from drowning, and driving off the demons who wanted the ship wrecked:
Finally, here is the death of Nicholas:
If we look at the second Cretan icon — this one from the 15th century — we see that it is much like the first:
The interesting thing is that having seen the first icon, you should now be able not only to read the inscription on the Gospel book in this second icon, you should also be able to identify every border image. Test yourself.
Here is the Gospel text:
You will notice that it abbreviates the word και (“and”) — and leaves out a couple of words at the end.
And here are the border images to identify, in no particular order:
You probably noticed that this second icon omits the border scene of the child Nicholas taken to be educated.