Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Nicholas, the Saint Who Became an Elf

Russian Icon Painter, Saint Nicholas the Wonder Worker
Russian, c. 1300
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

Happy Feast of Saint Nicholas, the real saint who became Santa Claus!  

I have collected some images of this popular saint that offer a visual explanation of his fascinating history.  

Nicholas started out as a devout Christian in a time when that could cost one's life.  Later he became a charitable and strong-minded bishop who became the patron saint of mariners.  He was given the title "The Wonder Worker" in the eastern Church and was extremely popular in the western Church as well.

But in the last 200 years he has somehow become a jolly old elf.  Here is a short visual history of how this happened.

Nicholas as Bishop and Saint
Medallion with Bust of Saint Nicholas
Byzantine, 9th Century
London, British Museum
This is a medallion intended for enameling, but apparently unfinished. The image is created by the little strips of metal, in this case gold, that create a sort of line drawing of the image.  Each little cell will be filled with the enamel paste, containing ground glass and pigment.  When each segment is filled the whole will be heated until the paste has reached the point at which it becomes solidified to create the finished enamelwork.

Saiint Nicholas
From the Melisande Psalter
Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, c. 1131-1143
London, British Library
MS Egerton 1139, fol. 209r

Saint Nicholas With Angels and Pilgrims
German, c. 1246-1255
Soest, Catholic Chapel of Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas, Stained Glass Window
Austrian, c. 1340-1350
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Cloisters Collection

Stories About Saint Nicholas

The Provision of Dowries
This story from the life of Saint Nicholas is judged by to be the most likely to be something that really happened by many scholars. It tells us that while still a young man, not a bishop, Nicholas became aware of the plight of a poor family with three daughters and no son.  In order to marry each girl needed a dowry.  The dowry was comprised of money, especially gold, and was considered necessary by the family of any potential bridegroom.  The girls father could not provide even one  sum and certainly not three.  Without a husband the girls would have very little financial support when their father died and would, therefore, have to become servants or prostitutes, practically the only options available for a woman in this kind of situation.  Taking pity on them Nicholas, whose family was rich, gave three bags or purses of coins to the family.  In order to remain anonymous in his generosity he threw the bags through the window of their house at night.  All four inhabitants are usually shown in bed.  This makes the illustrations of his deed so interesting.

Saint Nicholas Providing the Dowries
Italian, c. 1278-1279
Rome, Lateran Palace, Chapel of the Sancta Sanctorum

St. Nicholas Providing Dowries for the Three Girls
From Livre d'images de Madame Marie
Flemish (Hainaut), c. 1285-1290
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS  Nouvelle acquisition francaise 16251, fol. 90v

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Charity of Saint Nicholas
Italian, c. 1330-1340
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Bicci di Lorenzo, Saint Nicholas Providing Dowries
Italian, c. 1433-1435
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Master of Jean Rolin or Master of the Dunois Hours, Charity of Saint Nicholas
From the Hours of Simon de Varie
French (Paris), 1455
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 74 G 37, fol. 84r

Henri de Vermay II, Saint Nicholas Giving Dowries to the Three Girls
French, c. 1630
Valenciennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Saint Nicholas Rescuing Three Boys From the Pickling Barrel
This odd story is usually considered to be a fable, although fables are frequently based on actual fact.  In this story there is a serious famine in the city of Myra. During the famine, an evil, but enterprising, butcher selected three of the less emaciated boys (or youths or young clerics) killed them and placed their bodies in barrels of his pickling brine, intending to pass them off as ham and ham substitutes.  In prayer Saint Nicholas had a vision of their location.  Going to the butcher shop he opened the barrels and prayed for the boys to come to life again, which they did.

Saint Nicholas Rescuing the Three Boys
From the Stowe Breviary
English (Norwich), c. 1322-1325
London, British Library
MS Stowe 12, fol. 225

Gentile da Fabriano, Saint Nocolas Rescuing the Three Young Men
Italian, 1425
Vatican City State, Pinacoteca Vaticana

Bicci di Lorenzo, Saint Nicholas Rescuing Three Youths
Italian, c. 1433-1435
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Rambures Master, Saint Nicholas and the Three Boys
From a Book of Hours
French (Amiens), c. 1455-1465
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 194, fol.152v

Jean Bourdichon, Saint Nicholas and the Three Boys
From Grandes heures d'Anne de Bretagne
French (Tours), c. 1503-1508
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9474, fol. 183v

Transformation into Santa Claus
In the course of the nineteenth century, in both Europe and America, Saint Nicholas began to transform from the strictly religious bishop into something a bit different.  He never quite lost his religious overtones in Europe, in spite of the hostility to saints in the Protestant countries; while in America he transformed into something entirely different, a jolly old elf, with virtually no overtones of his religious origins.

In Nineteenth-Century Europe

Saint Nicholas, Reworked from a 16th Century Portrait of Charles V
Dutch, c. 1814-1830
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Brepols and Dierckxzoon, Saint Nicholas
Dutch, c. 1850-1900
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Jan de Haan, Entry of Saint Nicholas
Dutch, 1870
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Sinterklaas in a Bookstore
Dutch, 1873
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

In the United States

While the European Sinterklaas retained his bishop's attire, the American version turned him into something else.  By the middle of the twentieth century he had become merely an elf in a sleigh drawn by reindeer.

Arthur J. Stansbury, The Children's Friend
American, 1821
New York, William Gilley and Company

This is, no doubt, due to the influence of the poem published in 1844 and written by the New Yorker Clement Clarke Moore called "A Visit From Saint Nicholas".  The poem describes not a solemn bishop who rides a horse but a tiny elf who drives a miniature sleigh loaded with toys and powered by a team of "eight tiny reindeer".  You can read the poem here:  However, it is clear from the 1821 illustration just above that an idea similar to this had been in circulation twenty years before the poem was published.

American illustrators and artists were quick to give visual form to the image conjured up by the popular poem.

Illustration for "T'was the Night Before Christmas" 
Poem by Clement Clark Moore
Boston, L. Prang and Company, 1864, Page 11
Illustration for "T'was the Night Before Christmas"
Poem by Clement Clark Moore
Boston, L. Prang and Company, 1864, Page 12

Thomas Nast, Illustration for "T'was the Night Before Christmas" by Clement Clark Moore
American, 1869
New York, McLoughlin Brothers

Thomas Nast, Merry Old Santa Claus
Illustration from Harper's Weekly
American, 1881

Christmas Postcard
American, Early 20th Century
New York, New York Public Library Digital Collection

Christmas Postcard
American, c. 1900-1919
New York, New York Public Library Digital Collection

Santa was given his definitive American form by two illustrators who worked for The Saturday Evening Post in the first half of the twentieth century, J. C. Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell.

J.C. Leydendecker, Santa Behind a Window
The Saturday Evening Post
American, 1919

Norman Rockwell, Christmas
The Saturday Evening Post
American, 1927
Note that this Santa has a halo, linking him with his religious past.

By the middle of the century, Santa was very much the figure we see today.  A memorable and long-running series of ads for Coca Cola only cemented this persona in people's minds.

Haddon Sundblom, "They Knew What I Wanted"
American, 1945

The only reminder of his real life and sanctity were: his red suit, an echo of the red vestments worn at Masses on the feast days of martyred saints; his pointy hat, an echo of the bishop's miter, but of softer material; his appearance at night and his generosity.

© M. Duffy, 2017

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