Thursday, October 28, 2010

Saint Nicolas

Have you read the introductory passage inside the Boosey & Hawkes copies of the Benjamin Britten Saint Nicolas Cantata that we are rehearsing now?

If not here it is ...
"Nicolas was born at Patara in Asia Minor and died during the first half of the fourth century, having long served as Bishop of Myra, the capital of his native country Lycia. He is the hero of many popular legends, but few facts of his life are certain.
In 1087 his relics were captured from his tomb at Myra and carried away to the Italian city of Bari, where a new church was built to enshrine them. Here they continued, as at Myra, to work miracles: the shrine, which is said to exude a miraculous, sweet-smelling oil, became a place of pilgrimage from all parts of Europe.
In the Middle Ages four hundred churches were dedicated to his honour in England alone. He is the patron-saint of Russia and Greece, and is universally known to children in his disguise of ‘Santa Claus.’
Nicolas was born of wealthy parents. From his babyhood he showed signs of exceptional grace and refused to feed on canonical fast-days. He was taught by the Church in boyhood and youth, and when his parents died of the plague he gave all his wealth to charity and went in pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Coming back to the city of Myra, he was chosen Bishop according to a revelation made before his arrival, and served this diocese faithfully until his death.
During the persecution of the martyrs (303-311) Nicolas was imprisoned under Diocletian, Later he was one of the three hundred and eighteen Bishops summoned to attend the first great Church Council at Nicaea, where he is said to have disgraced himself, but given great glory to God, by striking the founder of the Arian heresy.
Most legends of Nicolas are concerned with his care of the poor and oppressed, and with his power of appearing from great distances to rescue those who called on him. The three golden balls that he carries in statues and pictures symbolise the purses of gold he secretly gave to rescue three girls of noble family from prostitution."

The first image of this post is by Ilya Repin painted in 1888 and entitled St. Nicholas Saves Three Innocents from Death, it is quite clear what the saint is up to. However, if you hadn't been told that he gave three balls to save three girls from prostitution, you'd have a hard time working it out from the fresco below, painted in 1425 by Gentile de Fabriano; the title St. Nicholas and the Three Gold Balls, gives no clue either!

For more St Nicolas iconography check out Olga's Gallery

1 comment:

Leta said...

The three gold balls represent the gold given to provide dowries for the impoverished maidens. Nicholas' gold balls became the pawnbroker's symbol. Sometimes oranges or apples are used to represent the gold.

More about St Nicolas symbols here.