Saint Nicholas of Bari by Carlo Crivelli

Saint Nicholas of Bari | Tempera on wood panel (h. 42-7/8 inches), 1472 Carlo Crivelli | Italian, born Venice, 1435-1495 | The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of the Hanna Fund 1952.111 Saint Nicholas of Bari | Tempera on wood panel (h. 42-7/8 inches), 1472 Carlo Crivelli | Italian, born Venice, 1435-1495 | The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of the Hanna Fund 1952.111

San Nicola di Bari, conosciuto anche come San Nicola di Myra, è venerato come santo dalla Chiesa cattolica, dalla Chiesa ortodossa e da diverse altre denominazioni cristiane. Egli è ben noto anche al di fuori del mondo cristiano, perché la sua figura ha dato origine al mito di Santa Claus, il Babbo Natale italiano. Un dipinto di questo santo, opera dall’artista veneziano Carlo Crivelli è esposto nelle gallerie del Cleveland Museum of Art dedicate alle opere del primo Rinascimento. Il santo, che tiene in mano un pastorale, è ritratto nelle vesti di un vescovo ed indossa una cappa riccamente ricamata, fermata da una fibbia.

St. Nicholas of Bari, also known as Saint Nicholas of Myra, is venerated as a saint by the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and several other Christian denominations. He is well-known even outside the Christian world because his figure gave rise to the myth of Santa Claus, the Italian Babbo Natale. A rich and ornate painting of this saint by the Venetian artist Carlo Crivelli hangs in the early Renaissance galleries of the Cleveland Museum of Art. The saint is shown vested as a bishop in an elaborately embroidered cope, fastened with a morse (clasp), and holding a crosier.  

The charm of Nicholas is fueled by the mystery of his origins, since very little or nothing is known of his family or childhood. He was probably born in Patara in Lycia (today's Turkey), between 261 and 280, from Epiphanius and Joanna who were affluent Christians. He grew up in an environment of Christian faith, but lost his parents prematurely because of the plague, and became a wealthy man. At this point, however, history fades into legend. A story relates that a nobleman of Patara had become poor and his three daughters of marriageable age became destitute since he could not afford to marry them decently. Nicolas learned of this situation and on three consecutive nights threw into the man's house three cloth bundles full of gold coins, so that the three girls could have a dowry. On the third night, the father stayed awake to discover who the benefactor was, but Nicholas asked him not to reveal what had happened. On another occasion, Nicholas was said to have found and revived five children that had been kidnapped and killed by an innkeeper. Because of these and other charitable acts he is revered as a protector of children.

Later on, Nicholas left his hometown and moved to Myra (now Demre, Turkey) where he was ordained as a priest. On the death of the metropolitan bishop of Myra, he was hailed by the people as the new bishop. Imprisoned and exiled in 305 during the persecution by Diocletian, he was later freed by Constantine in 313 and continued his apostolic activity. Nicholas died at Myra in the year 346. The remains of the saint are, today, in Italy. Until 1087, his body was preserved in the cathedral of Myra; then, when the city fell under Muslim rule, Bari and Venice, direct rivals in maritime trade with the East, competed for the translation of the relics of the saint.

An expedition of 62 sailors from Bari, among them two priests, Lupo and Grimoldo, with three ships belonging to the Dottula family, reached Myra and took away the remains of Nicholas, who arrived in Bari on May 9, 1087. According to legend, the relics were deposited where the oxen that pulled the wagon stopped, exactly at a Benedictine church (now the Church of St. Michael the Archangel) in the custody of Abbot Elijah, who would later become bishop of Bari. The abbot promoted the building of a new church dedicated to the saint, which was consecrated two years later by Pope Urban II at the time of the final placement of the relics under the crypt altar. All modern versions of Santa Claus are thought to derive from this kind and charitable saint, Nicholas of Bari, bishop of Myra. 

The Cleveland painting of Saint Nicholas of Bari is one of five panel paintings that originally comprised an altarpiece made in 1472 for the Church of San Domenico in Fermo. The other panels included Saints James the Major, Dominic and Michael the Archangel, which, in turn, flanked a central painting of the Enthroned Madonna and Child. These individual panels were likely separated at some point in the 19th century and are now preserved in different museums.  They all share the same minute attention to detail featuring sharp faces, energetic hands and crinkled draperies. All of the figures are painted against a gold ground background that, by the late 1400s, was considered to be old-fashioned.

By the mid-1400s, most Florentine artists had stopped using gold grounds in their pictures, preferring instead naturalistic backgrounds of landscapes and blue skies. However, elsewhere in Italy, gold ground painting remained popular, as in Crivelli’s Saint Nicholas of Bari. Crivelli was a painter of conservative late-Gothic sensibilities, who spent his early years in the Veneto where he absorbed influences from painters like Mantegna. Crivelli was born around 1430–35 in Venice to a family of painters and received his artistic formation there and in Padua. The details of Crivelli's career are still sparse. By 1458, he left the Veneto, never to return. He spent most of the remainder of his career in the Marche, especially in Ancona and Ferme, where he developed a distinctive personal style. His urban settings are jewel-like and full of elaborate allegorical detail. He favored rich draperies for his figures and his works can be identified by his characteristic use of fruits and flowers as decorative motifs, often depicted in pendant festoons. Commissioned by the Franciscans and Dominicans of Ascoli, Crivelli's work is exclusively religious in nature. His paintings consist largely of “Madonna and Child” images, “Pietà” and the altarpieces known as polyptychs that were increasingly unfashionable. Often filled with images of suffering, such as gaping wounds in Christ's hands and side and the mouths of mourners twisted in agony, Crivelli's work fulfills the spiritual needs of those who viewed his paintings. His work attracted numerous prestigious commissions and must have appealed to the taste of his patrons.

The sumptuous and ornate quality of Cleveland’s Saint Nicholas of Bari, a true masterpiece, is entirely fitting for this much beloved and charitable saint, the prototype of today’s Father Christmas or Santa Clause. It is a visual feast for the eyes which especially resonates during the Christmas season. Buona Natale!