Saturday, December 06, 2014

The Legend of St Nicholas in Liturgy and Art

The traditional Roman liturgy assigns to the feast of St Nicholas the common Office of Confessor Bishops Ecce sacerdos magnus, with the proper lessons at Matins recounting his life, and the common Mass Statuit, with proper prayers. The Collect of his feast refers to the “innumerable miracles” wrought through his intercession, for which he is often called by the Byzantines “the Wonderworker”; the Secret is borrowed from the Mass of the first Confessor Bishop venerated in the West, St. Martin.

A Russian icon of St Nicholas, painted ca. 1500-50, showing episodes from his life and his miracles in the small panels that form the border. 
In the Middle Ages, a proper Office was composed for his feast, which is described thus by the liturgical commenter Sicard of Cremona, writing at the end of the 12th century.
The teachers of the Greeks have written down the life of the blessed Nicholas, and the miracles done in his life, … saying that he was born of an illustrious family, and filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb, or from his childhood. He delivered three virgins from the infamous dealings of their father; he was promoted to the episcopacy by divine revelation; he came to help sailors in danger of shipwreck; he multiplied grain; … he delivered some people from a death sentence, and others from prison. From his tomb there comes forth an oil, which heals various ailments. … No pen can suffice to write down all the miracles with which he has shone forth after his death, nor can any man’s eloquence tell of them all. Out of this legend, today’s ‘history’ is put together. (Mitrale IX, 2)
In Sicard’s time, and for long after, the Latin word “historia” (history) was the common technical term for what we would now call the proper Office of a Saint. Many such Offices were composed by setting to music texts from the Saints’ lives; a “historia” was the sum of the antiphons, responsories and (somewhat more rarely) hymns, composed for such an Office. The “legend”, on the other hand, (Latin “legendum – something to be read”), is the story of the Saint’s life as read in the lessons of Matins. Therefore, when Sicard says that today’s “history” is put together out of this “legend”, what he means is that the propers of St Nicholas’ Office are composed from texts taken from the account of his life and miracles.

The proper Office of St Nicholas is called O Pastor aeterne, the first words of the Magnificat antiphon at First Vespers; it has been attributed (not with absolute certainty) to a monk named Isembert, of the monastery of St. Ouen in France, who lived in the middle of the 11th-century. It was adopted very widely, but not in Rome; hence it is found in the proper Breviaries of the religious orders (Dominicans, Premonstratensians etc.), but not the Roman Breviary. Writing about a century after Sicard, the liturgical commenter William Durandus tells the following story about the use of this Office.
It is said that in a certain church, … since the historia of blessed Nicholas was not yet sung, the brothers of that place asked their prior insistently that he permit them to sing it; but he refused, saying that it was improper to change the ancient custom with novelties. But since they kept asking, he answered indignantly, “Leave me alone; these new songs, or rather, these jokes, will not be sung in my church!” Now when the feast of the Saint had come, the brethren sadly finished the night vigils (i.e. Matins). And when they had all gone to bed, behold, the blessed Nicholas appeared visibly to the prior in a terrible guise, and, pulling him out of bed by his hair, dashed him to the floor of the dormitory. Then, beginning the antiphon O Pastor aeterne, at each change of note he smacked him heavily on the back with the two rods he held in his hand, and thus sang the antiphon morosely through to the end. Since all were wakened by the noise, the prior was taken to his bed half-alive; and when he had recovered he said, “Go, sing the new historia of St Nicholas.” (Rationale Div. Off. VII, 39)
It must be granted that this behavior seems wildly out of character for the Nicholas described by the Office O Pastor aeterne itself, of which the first responsory says:
R. The confessor of God, Nicholas, noble of birth, but nobler in his manners, * having followed the Lord from his very youth, merited to be promoted to the episcopacy by divine revelation. V. For he was greatly compassionate, and moved by holy pity for the afflicted. Having followed…
And likewise, the fifth antiphon of Matins:
Aña Surpassing the customs of youth with innocence, he became a disciple of the law of the Gospel. 
On the other hand, the Byzantine tradition tells a story that Nicholas, when he was present at the First Council of Nicea, was so moved with righteous indignation at Arius’ denial of Christ’s divinity that he slapped him in the face.

St Nicholas slaps Arius in face, as depicted in a 14th-century fresco within the monastery complex of Panagia Sumela, in modern Turkey.
The image above is part of a much larger fresco, only one panel of which is seen here below, depicting the Council of Nicea. The Emperor St Constantine, as he is called in the Byzantine churches, presides over the Council; Nicholas slapping Arius is in the lower left. The monastery has been abandoned since 1923, and the frescos are sadly much damaged by vandalism.
The story to which Sicard refers when he says that St Nicholas “delivered three virgins from the infamous dealings of their father” is of course the part of the legend that has turned him into Santa Claus. As told by Durandus’ contemporary, Jacopo de Voragine, in the Golden Legend, a man of his city could not dower his daughters, and was considering selling them into prostitution.
But when the saint learned of this, he abhorred this crime; and he threw a lump of gold wrapped in a cloth into the man’s house through the window at night, and departed in secret. Rising in the morning, the man found the lump of gold, and giving thanks to God, celebrated the wedding of his first daughter. Not long after, the servant of God did the same thing (again.) And the man upon finding it, burst forth with great praises, and determined thenceforth to keep watch, so that he might discover who it was that had aided his poverty. After a few days, (Nicholas) threw a lump of gold twice as big into the house. At the sound of this, the man was awoken, and followed Nicholas as he fled, … and so, by running more quickly, he learned that it was Nicholas … (who) made him promise not to tell the story while he lived.
This story is also referred to repeatedly in O Pastor aeterne, for example, in the eighth responsory of Matins:
R. The servant of God Nicholas by a weight of gold redeemed the chastity of three virgins; * and put to flight the unchaste poverty of their father by a gift of gold. V. Being therefore deeply rich in mercy, by the metal which he doubled, he drove infamy from them. And put to flight…
For this reason, he is often represented holding three golden balls, as in this painting by Gentile da Fabriano, the Quaratesi polyptych, done in 1425.


In the old chapel of the Lateran complex in Rome known as the “Sancta Sanctorum – the Holy of Holies”, (not because of its status as a Papal chapel, but because it used to contain one of the most impressive relic collection in the world), the story is represented in two parts. On the right, St Nicholas tosses the gold though the window; on the left, the father catches him, and is told by the Saint to keep the story secret. This shows how old the custom really is of staying up late at night to try to catch Santa Claus when he comes to the house to deliver presents. (For some reason, this never works any more.)
Unknown Italian fresco painter, ca. 1278-79. The Pope who commissioned this work was Nicholas III (1278-79).

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