05 July, 2006

41. St. Nic the Wonderworker

Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker was Bishop of Myra, an old Greek town in Lycia on the Mediterranean southern coast of Turkey, which later became a Roman harbour town important enough to have its own amphitheatre, the ruins of which are now part of the province of Anatolia.

Bishop Nicholas was a delegate to the First Council of Nicea in 325, called by Emperor Constantine to decide key matters of Christian doctrine in the vain hope that it would stop the incessant theological squabbling then going on in the church. Arguments that would seem like mystical hairsplitting by some today, were then important enough to excommunicate, exile, even to execute those on the losing side.

The Arian team – who held that Jesus, being the son of the father, was holy but not the SAME as the father, not made of exactly the same substance – lost. The winners, the Alexandrian team, held that Jesus was "God from God", truly divine, and that The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were actually all one. The Council, which resulted in the Alexandrian-supporting Nicene Creed, was not an unqualified success, because even though its supporters lost, the Arian 'heresy' took an awful long time to stop being a nuisance to the rulers of orthodoxy.

Nic was on the winning side – like most of the delegates were at the final vote – so he went back to his bishopric where he died on December 6, 330 AD. Sanctified for a number of supposed lifesaving miracles attributed to him, Saint Nicholas' official day in the calendar is the day he died, and that is why in parts of Europe, Santa Claus, or Sinterklaas, delivers his gifts to children on December 6, rather than on December 25.

St Nicholas is the patron saint of children (not surprisingly), pawnbrokers (go figure), and mariners. That latter capacity must be why he is celebrated in Venice, the greatest maritime power of its time, with this gloriously realistic mosaic portrait high up on the façade of St Mark's basilica.

I call this a portrait, because that is what it is, not a religious icon like the stylized Byzantine mosaics of Christ and his saints on the domes and walls inside the basilica. This is a much later work, and a real person sat for the late Renaissance artist who captured his likeness and made it permanent in tiny bits of beautifully arranged tile.

Who was the model? Certainly not St Nic himself, he was long gone. Nobles in Venice – those with money, anyway – were known to have had themselves portrayed WITH Christ and various saints, but not as far as I know AS one of the saints. The sitter for this portrait is much more likely to be an anonymous worker – a stonemason perhaps, or a baker, perhaps even a beggar with just the right face hauled off the street and cleaned up by the artist for as long as took to make the preliminary sketches.

Whoever he was, I love the character in his face, I love his beautiful halo, and I really like the fact that he's wearing a T-shirt under his vestments.

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