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Featured Windows, December 2005

St. Nicholas, Special Friend of Children, Sailors and the Poor


St. Paul's Episcopal Church - Muskegon, Michigan

Christ Church Grosse Pointe - Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan

St. Nicholas is shown as the special friend of children, sailors and the poor. Christ Church Grosse Pointe, Grosse Pointe Farms, MI. George Gugert, Willet Studios, Philadelphia, PA, 1941. Photo by Mike DeFillipi. MSGC 93.0080.

St. Nicholas as the patron saint of children and sailors. St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Muskegon, MI. Willet Studios, Philadelphia, PA, 1943. Registered by Virginia Gay Van Vleck of Muskegon. MSGC 94.0086.

St. Nicholas, fourth-century Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, has often been represented in paintings, book illustrations, sculpture, mosaics, stained glass, and other forms of art. Born in Patara, Lycia (Turkey), to Christian parents during the late third century, young Nicholas dedicated his life to God and became a priest. Following a pilgrimage to Palestine, he visited the seaport of Myra (now Demre, Turkey) where the clergy had gathered to elect a new bishop. With divine guidance, they decided to choose the first person named Nicholas to enter the church the next morning. When Nicholas entered the church to pray, he was selected to be the next Bishop of Myra. St. Nicholas is usually depicted wearing a bishop's stole and pointed hat, or miter, and carrying a bishop's hooked staff, or crozier.

As the Bishop of Myra, Nicholas was among many Christians persecuted by the Roman Emperor Diocletian during the early fourth century. After enduring exile and imprisonment, he was released and returned to Myra when Emperor Constantine came to power. In 325 he was one of several hundred bishops who attended the Council of Nicaea, called by Constantine to settle disagreements about the meaning of the Holy Trinity. Nicholas died on December 6, 343, at Myra and is buried in the cathedral church. The date of his death is celebrated as St. Nicholas Day in many countries. In the Netherlands and elsewhere, November parades portray the arrival of the saint for the Christmas season.

Images of St. Nicholas in art often include references to the many legends of his charitable and miraculous acts. When young Nicholas inherited a fortune from his wealthy parents, he decided to share his inheritance with the poor. After hearing of a local nobleman who had lost all of his money and was unable to provide dowries for his three marriageable daughters, Nicholas threw a bag of gold through the man's window by night on three different occasions, one bag for each daughter's dowry, thereby saving the young women from lives of slavery or prostitution. On the third night, he was apprehended and identified as the secret benefactor, giving rise to his reputation as a friend of the poor. His three gifts of gold have been compared to the three Magi's gifts for the Christ Child and are sometimes symbolized in art by three golden globes or balls. Three golden balls are also the insignia of pawnbrokers, who have adopted St. Nicholas as their patron saint.

A related legend describes a severe famine in Myra and Lycia, when its people were facing starvation because of crop failures. Some ships laden with wheat for Alexandria had anchored in Myra's harbor, so Bishop Nicholas asked if he could buy enough grain to feed his hungry people. When the captain explained that he was obligated to deliver all of the carefully measured grain to its destination, Nicholas persuaded him that selling some of the wheat would create no shortage. One hundred bushels of grain were unloaded from each of the ships, which then sailed on to Alexandria, where the miraculously replenished grain proved to be the exact measured amount. Meanwhile, the purchased grain fed the people of Myra until the famine was over and the good bishop was again praised as a benefactor of the poor.

Other legends of St. Nicholas tell of his miraculous saving of storm-tossed sailors. One such story involves the pilgrimage young Nicholas made to the Holy Land, when his ship was nearly overwhelmed by the raging sea. During the storm, one sailor was killed when he fell from the mast onto the deck. Nicholas calmed the heavy waves, restored the dead sailor to life and the ship was brought safely to shore. This story and similar accounts of his protection of storm-threatened ships have led to his role as the patron saint of sailors and voyagers and the building of countless harbor churches that bear his name. Images of a ship or anchor often appear with depictions of St. Nicholas.

Still another legend has been a popular subject in representations of St. Nicholas. One version relates the story of three schoolboys who became lost and sought refuge in a butcher shop. The evil butcher welcomed them, then cut them up for meat and put them into a pickling or salting tub. Wearing his bishop's stole and miter, St. Nicholas arrived, found the slain children in the salting tub and brought them back to life. In another version of the story, the butcher is identified as an innkeeper, who murdered the children for meat to feed his guests. As in the first account, St. Nicholas appeared and restored the children to life and to their parents. These stories confirmed the saint as a special friend and protector of children.

Left: St. Nicholas brings three schoolboys back to life from the pickling tub, while the evil innkeeper who butchered them cowers in the background. This French postcard dates to the early 20th century. Collection of Val R. Berryman, Curator of History, MSU Museum. Right: St. Nicholas is shown as the special friend of children. French postcard, ca. 1930s. Collection of Val R. Berryman, Curator of History, MSU Museum.

St. Nicholas in his bishop's stole and miter looks down at the three children he has returned to life. St. Mary Catholic Church, Junction, Paulding County, OH. Unidentified studio, ca. 1911. Photo courtesy of Joan Z. Bonin of Rochester, MI.

The windows shown above refer to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of little children, sailors and the poor. The window at the left shows the revered saint with three children of varying ages. In the background are vignettes that illustrate his protection of sailors and his miraculous replenishing of grain for the hungry people of Myra. Above at the right, St. Nicholas is portrayed as a friend of children, above a panel bearing a storm-tossed ship with a broken mast. Another window, shown to the right here, illustrates the miracle of the three murdered children restored by St. Nicholas to wholeness and life.

In America, St. Nicholas is closely identified with the Santa Claus of the Christmas season. The transformation of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, into Santa Claus, the jolly fur-clad gent who brings gifts to American children on Christmas Eve, derived from several sources. Although fifteenth-century European Catholics who settled in America continued to venerate the saint, his traditions found little favor among the Puritan colonists of the 1600s, whose Reformation beliefs rejected all saints. However, some references to St. Nicholas customs appear in the records of both the Pennsylvania German and New York Dutch colonies. In the early 1800s, following the American Revolution, St. Nicholas was proclaimed the patron saint of New York City and the newly formed New York Historical Society. His popularity grew even greater with the publication in 1809 of Washington Irving's Knickerbocker's History of New York, a fictitious account that featured a jolly elf-like St. Nicholas character who suggested a pipe-smoking Dutch citizen of New Amsterdam. Irving's imaginative "history" launched several new St. Nicholas legends, including the still popular story about St. Nicholas coming down chimneys to bring gifts to children on Christmas Eve.

In 1823 the American image of St. Nicholas gained further popularity with the publication of the poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," (or "The Night Before Christmas") attributed to Clement Clark Moore. The new St. Nicholas image was permanently established with drawings by 19th-century political cartoonist and illustrator Thomas Nast (1840-1902) that appeared in Harper's Weekly and other publications during the late 1800s and with paintings by Muskegon native Haddon Sundblom (1899-1976) for Coca-Cola advertisements in the 1900s. Through their widely published illustrations, the new image of St. Nicholas became better known as Santa Claus, a phonetic derivation of the German Sankt Niklaus and Dutch Sinterklaas. Today the American image of Santa Claus may be as well known worldwide as that of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra.

Thomas Nast created numerous drawings for the Christmas season, using his own children and home as models in scenes with Santa. Around 1880 he illustrated Moore's classic poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," for McLoughlin Brothers, New York City publishers of children's books. His illustrations closely followed Moore's word pictures, transforming St. Nicholas into a "right jolly old elf," small enough to easily come down a chimney "dressed all in fur from his head to his foot." Nast also created Santa Claus illustrations for another book, Santa Claus and His Works, published ca. 1869 by McLoughlin Brothers.

Left: Santa Claus ready to go down a chimney, one of Thomas Nast's illustrations for Clement Clark Moore's poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," published by McLoughlin Brothers, New York City, ca. 1880. Collection of MSU Museum. Right: Santa Claus leaving gifts for children by the fireside, an illustration by Thomas Nast for Santa Claus and His Works, published by McLoughlin Brothers, New York City, ca. 1869. Nast's color illustrations were based on his black and white wood engravings for Harper's Weekly in 1866. Collection of Val R. Berryman, Curator of History, MSU Museum.

Haddon Sundblom was born in 1899 in Muskegon, MI, the son of a Finnish shipbuilder. At age nineteen, he enrolled at the American Academy of Art in Chicago where he studied for four years, followed by four more years of study at the Art Institute of Chicago. By the 1920s he had become a highly successful magazine illustrator and commercial artist. The Santa Claus created by Sundblom in 1931 for the Coca-Cola Company has become a well-known American icon. For over thirty years his jovial grandfatherly image appeared in Coca-Cola ads on billboards, cutout store displays and back covers of National Geographic, Saturday Evening Post and Life Magazine.

Left: The first Santa Claus painting made by Haddon Sundblom for the Coca-Cola Company, as it appeared in the December 26, 1931 issue of Collier's Magazine. Sundblom painted a new Santa illustration for Coca-Cola almost every year until 1964. Collection of Val R. Berryman, Curator of History, MSU Museum. Right: A Czechoslovakian die-cut scrap combines the religious image of St. Nicholas with the gift sack of Santa Claus. Ca. 1920s to 1930s. Collection of Val R. Berryman, Curator of History, MSU Museum.

Although images of the American Santa Claus and St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, may differ in the details of their figures, garments and roles, both represent the spirit of good will and generosity of the Christmas season, with special concern for children and the poor.

--Special thanks to Val R. Berryman for bibliographic assistance, and for the use and descriptions of items in his collection.

Bibliography: Show Bibliography

(MSGC 1993.0080, 1994.0086)

Text by Betty MacDowell, Michigan Stained Glass Census, December , 2005.