Friday, December 06, 2019

The Life of St Nicholas in a Renaissance Altarpiece

In the year 1425, the artist Gentile da Fabriano painted an altarpiece for the chapel of a noble Florentine family called Quaratesi, in the church of St Nicholas. Gentile, who was born in Fabriano in the Marches ca. 1370, and died in Rome in 1427, is one of the finest representatives of the Internaional Gothic school of painting, a highly decorative style particularly prized by wealthy patrons. This altarpiece was subsequently dismembered, and the various panels are now displayed in several museums; these four panels, which show Ss Mary Magdalene, Nicholas, John the Baptist (one of the principal patrons of Florence), and George, are currently in the Uffizi. (Public domain images from Wikimedia Commons except where noted.)
The manner in which St Nicholas’ chasuble and dalmatic are painted is particularly impressive, as the images in the decorative panels on the central embroidered strip conform to the natural folds of the  garment. The scenes depicted are those of the upcoming feasts of Our Lord: the Nativity, Epiphany, flight into Egypt, the massacre of the Innocents, the Circumcision and Baptism. Of course, today, we would not use black vestments to celebrate these events, but in Gentile’s time (and after) it was common to use the best and most richly decorated vestments on solemn feasts, regardless of their color.
(Image from Wikimedia Commons by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta, CC BY-SA 4.0)
This panel of the Madonna and Child was originally in the center of the altarpiece, between Ss Nicholas and John the Baptist; it is now in the National Gallery in London.
The five predella panels depict episodes from the life of the church’s patron; the first four are now in the Painting Gallery of the Vatican Museums, the fifth in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Each episode is also mentioned in the Saint’s proper Office, which was used almost everywhere except for Rome, and is therefore not included in the Breviary of St Pius V. In this scene of his birth, Nicholas is shown as if he were already mature enough to stand on his own; it is recounted in his life that even as an infant, he fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays, refusing to suckle, for which reason the first antiphon of Lauds reads “The blessed Nicholas, while yet a child, with much fasting chastised his body.” 
The second panel shows the famous act of charity because of which he came to known as Santa Claus. Long before his election as bishop of Myra, when he was in his native town of Patara, a very poor fellow-citizen thought to prostitute his three daughters, whom he could not afford to properly dower, a thing which was in fact quite possible in the ancient world. Therefore, on three successive night, Nicholas threw sacks (often stylized artistically as golden balls) with enough money to provide one dowry threw the man’s window, but on the third night, the man waited up and caught him, the first and last person to successfully wait up at night to catch Santa. Nicholas then made him promise not to reveal the story until after his death. One of the responsories of his Office tells it as follows: 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…
St Nicholas while still alive saves a ship caught in a severe storm when the sailors call upon him; another responsory reads “... tossed about by a raging storm, the sailors began to call upon St Nicholas, and immediately the storm ceased. V. As soon as they called out, a man appeared to them and said, ‘Behold, I am here. Why did you call me?’ ”
This panel represents a later evolution of the story that St Nicholas saved three young military officers who had been condemned to death because of a false accusation; the specific circumstances vary greatly in detail from one version to another. A responsory of the Office says “The confessor of Christ, hearing of the (impending) death of the three innocent youths, ran as fast as he could to the place where they were to be beheaded and delivered them.” The art historian Emile Mâle explains in his wonderful book The Gothic Image (p. 288) how this episode was transformed, so that Nicholas raises from the dead three children who were murdered by a wicked inkeeper and his wife, and their bodies hidden in a brining tub. (He cites a study of the stained-glass windows in the cathedral of Bourges by Fr Charles Cahier and Arthur Martin.) “In accordance with mediaeval custom, which in the east as in the west showed its respect for the saints by making them of superhuman stature, St. Nicholas was represented as very tall. The three officers at his feet appeared smaller than children, and with the naivety of the time their three heads were shown emerging from the top of a tower to signify that they had been delivered from prison. In the west, where the cult of St. Nicholas was introduced in the eleventh century, men were not familiar with his story, and they invented one to explain what they saw. The three officers became three children, the tower became a salting-tub, while the inn-keeper and his wife were figures which lived in the popular fancy.” 
The final panel shows miraculous healings taking place at his tomb, here represented in the fashion of medieval tombs like that of St Peter Martyr, in which the marble sarcophagus is elevated specifically so that people can pass under it and venerate it. The final responsory of his office reads as follows: R. From his marble tomb comes forth a sacred oil; and when they are anointed with it, the blind are healed, * hearing is given back to the deaf, and every lame man walks away healthy. V. In crowds the people rush, wishing to see the wonders that take place through him. Hearing is given back to the deaf, and every lame man walks away healthy. Hearing is given back...

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: