Monday, December 06, 2021

St. Nicholas, Beloved Bishop and Wonderworker

Unlike his present European status as a white-haired fairytale figure, benign and vaguely Christian, who presides once a year over the delightful day that begins with the discovery of trinkets in one’s shoes, in the Middle Ages Nicholas stood in the front rank of saints universally venerated and loved by the Christian peoples of Europe.

In England alone, there were over four hundred churches dedicated to him, and Russia took him as patron alongside Andrew the Apostle. [1] It has been estimated that in French- and German-speaking lands during the High Middle Ages, at least 2000 churches dedicated to St. Nicholas could be found. [2] “The heterogeneity of his competencies as patron saint is unrivalled: there is hardly another saint to whom the protection of such a large number of towns and countries—stretching from the Atlantic coasts to orthodox Russia—was entrusted.” [3] 

His relics, which were safely landed at Bari, Italy on May 9, 1087 after being rescued from Saracen-dominated Myra, attracted a vast number of pilgrims from all over Europe during the centuries that followed, many of whom were eager to take back home some of the sweet-smelling, health-giving myrrh that flowed from his mortal remains. [4] This oil is referred to as the “manna of St. Nicholas”; a treatise in its defense was composed as recently as 1925. Among the earliest visitors of his relics in Italy was Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury.

His life was depicted in song and sculpture, stained glass and altar paintings; it is even claimed that he was represented in art more frequently than any saint except the Virgin Mary. [5] A manuscript in Fleury, France contains four distinct liturgical dramas dedicated to St. Nicholas. His reputation spread as far as medieval Iceland, where an epic poem, the Nikolassaga Biskupa, was composed in his honor. [6]

What do we know for certain of the life of Nicholas? By modern critical standards, practically nothing other than his existence as a fourth-century bishop of Myra reputed for great holiness. If, however, we broaden our sources to include the best hagiographical literature of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, a more detailed portrait emerges. There is no need to recount the prodigious array of miracles; it is enough to mention the elements common to the vitae Nicolai Episcopi in every land and tongue. [7] 

For having rescued sailors off the coast of Lycia, Nicholas is honored as patron of seafarers; for having appeared in dreams to Constantine and a prefect named Ablavius on behalf of three unjustly-convicted prisoners, he is honored as patron of captives. [8] Later, students and scholars were added to his patronal competency, giving him a foothold at the burgeoning medieval universities. The Vatican Pinacoteca contains several exceptional paintings of the life and miracles of Nicholas. Deserving of special mention are the Quaratesi Altarpiece (1425) by Gentile da Fabriano and The Story of St. Nicholas (1437) by Fra Angelico.

While the old Roman Collect emphasizes his miracles (“Deus, qui beatum Nicolaum Pontificem innumeris decorasti miraculis”) and the Greeks refer to him as “the Wonderworker,” his fame in the Middle Ages rested less on a miracle than on a gift of alms to a family in his native town of Patera, prior to his election as bishop of Myra. In order to rescue three unwed girls from the prostitution their impoverished father was planning for them, Nicholas, who had in­herited wealth from his parents, went under cover of darkness to the man’s house and threw a bag of gold into the window as a dowry, doing this three times, until all the daughters were married off. [9] (The red-garbed jolly old man of no particular religious affiliation distributing gifts to good children at Christmastide appears to be a Protestant reconfiguration, with Victorian touches, of the original Catholic saint famed for giving gold to the three maidens—note the derivation of Santa Klaus from, ultimately, Sanctus Nicolaus.)

As a bishop, Nicholas was celebrated for his generosity toward the poor and his uncompromising defense of Christian orthodoxy. “Thanks to his teaching,” we read in the Chronicles of Methodius, “the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as death-dealing poison.” [10] Tradition relates that Nicholas participated in the Council of Nicaea, and was so incensed by the pride of Arius that he slapped him in the face. [11] His legendary zeal for the orthodox faith may partially explain the Epistle traditionally appointed for his feast, a reading from the last chapter of Hebrews in the course of which come these words: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings; for it is well that the heart be strengthened by grace, not by foods which have not benefited their adherents. . . . Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God” (Heb. 13:8–9; 15). Verse 17 brings to mind again the charity of Nicholas: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (in the Vulgate: “Beneficentiae autem, et communionis nolite oblivisci: talibus enim hostiis promeretur Deus”).

The intimate link between Christian orthodoxy and Christian charity finds an apt expression in Nicholas, “one of the first people to be venerated as a saint without having been a martyr,” observes Cardinal Ratzinger, [12] who continues:
Another of the legends [surrounding Nicholas] expresses it very beautifully in this way: Whereas all the other miracles could be performed by magicians and demons, and thus were ambivalent, one miracle was absolutely transparent and could not involve any deception, namely, that of living out the faith in everyday life for an entire lifetime and maintaining charity. People in the fourth century experienced this miracle in the life of Nicholas, and all the miracle stories which accrued subsequently to the legend are only variations on this one, fundamental miracle, which Nicholas’ contemporaries compared, with wonder and gratitude, to the morning star reflecting the radiance of the light of Christ. In this man they understood what faith in God’s Incarnation means; in him the dogma of Nicaea had been translated into tangible terms. [13]
An ancient Byzantine biographer of St. Nicholas described the Bishop as one who “received his dignity from Christ’s own sublime nature just as the morning star receives its brilliance from the rising sun.” [14]
Photo taken in St Nicholas' Orthodox Cathedral in Washington DC on his feast day.

All photos by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP.


[1] A. Butler, Butler’s Lives of the Saints, ed., and rev. Herbert J. Thurston, sj, and Donald Attwater, 4 vols. Westminster, Maryland, Christian Classics, 1990, 4:505–6.

[2] Enciclopedia Cattolica, Città del Vaticano, 1952, s.v. “Nicola di Mira.”

[3] E. De’Mircovich, liner notes to La Nuit de Saint Nicholas, Arcana A72, 15–16.

[4] Butler’s Lives, 4:505.

[5] Butler’s Lives, 4:505–6.

[6] E. De’Mircovich, La Nuit de Saint Nicholas, 15.

[7] For a brief modern account of the life of Nicholas, see Butler’s Lives, 4:503–6. For a popular medieval account—and a good indication of what a thirteenth-century friar is likely to have had in mind when preaching on the saint or invoking his help—see Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, trans. W. G. Ryan, 2 vols. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1993, 1:21–27. Jacobus, an Italian Dominican who eventually held high offices in the Order as teacher and administrator and became archbishop of Genoa in 1292, wrote the Legenda Aurea around 1260. As Ryan notes in his introduction, “the popularity of the Legend was such that some one thousand manuscripts have survived, and, with the advent of printing in the 1450s, editions both in the original Latin and in every Western European language multiplied into the hundreds” (1:xiii). See L.-J. Bataillon, op, “Iacopo da Varazze e Thommaso d’Aquino,” in: Sapienza 32/1 [Naples] (1979), 22–29.

[8] Butler’s Lives, 4:505–6; Golden Legend, 1:22–24.

[9] Butler’s Lives, 4:504; Golden Legend, 1:21–22.

[10] Butler’s Lives, 4:504. This Methodius was a Patriarch of Constantinople in the ninth century.

[11] Butler’s Lives, 4:503–4; Golden Legend, 1:22.

[12] J. Ratzinger, “Reflections at Advent,” in Seek That Which Is Above: Meditations Through the Year. Trans. G. Harrison. San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1986, 21.

[13] Ratzinger, “Advent,” 21–22. In this paragraph, “all the other miracles” must be referring to ambiguous external phenomena, since a genuine miracle can only be done by divine power.

[14] Ibid., 20.

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