6 December is the Feast of St. Nicholas, patron saint of numerous groups, including sailors, merchants, and children. Though Greek, Nicholas is widely revered in Italy because of the translation of his relics from his original tomb in Myra, where he was bishop in the 4th century, to Bari in the late 11th century.
Numerous Italian artists have portrayed events from the saint’s legend, including his provision of a dowry for three poor girls, throwing money through their window as they slept, Another story relates how he saved three innocent youths from beheading by a corrupt Roman consul.
Nicholas is typically shown wearing his bishop’s mitre and ecclesiastical robes and often holds gold balls as a symbol of the dowry he provided to the poor girls (the Golden Legend says he left a “mass of gold” but artists typically show spheres). His reputation for secret gift-giving, Nicholas serves as the model for Santa Claus, and many mark the beginning of the Christmas season with his feast day.
Palmerino di Guido, St Nicholas Saving Three Innocents from Decapitation, 1300-01. Fresco. Chapel of St Nicholas, Lower Church, San Francesco, Assisi
Cecco di Pietro, St Nicholas, c. 1386. Poplar panel, gold ground, Musée du Petit Palais, Avignon
Fra Angelico, St Nicholas of Bari, 1423-24. Tempera on wood. Private collection (originally part of the San Domenico di Fiesole Altarpiece).
Gentile da Fabriano, Quaratesi Polyptych: Pilgrims at the Tomb of St Nicholas of Bari, 1425. Panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington
Fra Angelico, Stories of St Nicholas, altarpiece predella, 1447-48. Tempera and gold on panel, Pinacoteca, Vatican
Bartolomeo Vivarini, St Nicholas of Bari, bef. 1499. Panel, Santo Stefano, Venice
Tintoretto, St Nicholas, before 1594. Oil on canvas, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Leonardo Corona, St Nicholas Aiding Shipwrecked Sailors in a Storm, bef. 1605. Oil on canvas. San Nicolò dei Mendicoli, Venice