A BISHOP WITH NO MITRE
The three pictures at right demonstrate the three most important features of St. Nicholas portraits. In the first we see a bearded bishop holding his crozier but not usually wearing his mitre. The beard is in almost every picture of this saint, and is most often gray or graying. The bare head is due to a legend recounted in Molanus (390-91): At the Council of Nicea, our saint angrily slapped one of the Arians on the cheek. As punishment the Council then ordered that he no longer be allowed to wear either his mitre or his pallium.
Because of this story, St. Nicholas is almost never portrayed wearing a mitre. (Abbots are also portrayed bareheaded with a crozier, but never in liturgical vestments.) Even a mitre in some other part of the composition, as here, is rare. In Eastern art St. Nicholas always wears an omophorion, which is much like a pallium, and this sometimes shows up in Western images (example) In one image the Virgin appears to be restoring Nicholas's pallium to him.
THREE GOLD BALLS
The second and most common feature of St. Nicholas portraits is a set of three gold balls. In the Golden Legend the saint helps a father of three daughters who had lost everything and feared he would have to prostitute the girls. Nicholas came surreptitiously to the man's window three nights in a row, and each night he tossed in a bag of gold.
Rarely this story is referenced by a purse or bag hanging from the saint's hand (example). But a mere bag is not very expressive, so instead most artists use three gold balls, one for each night's gift. Usually the balls are on a closed book in his left hand (example), but occasionally they are to the side (example). Sometimes the book is open, in one case to a page in which the saint introduces himself to the viewer.
BOYS IN A TUB
The third way of identifying Nicholas is by including in the image a tub with three boys, as in the last picture at right. The story of the tub appears to derive from an episode in the early vitae about three innocent soldiers who are unjustly condemned to death by a corrupt consul. Nicholas arrives just in time to the carnificina (execution-place), rescues them, and gives the consul a thorough scolding (image).
The story is in the Golden Legend, but even before Voragine new versions had changed the young nobles into students who are killed but miraculously restored to life. In the play Tres Clerici of about 1200 (Dronke, 70-77), an innkeeper kills three students for their money. Later, St. Nicholas comes to the inn and urges him to repent and pray with him that God bring the students back to life. After they pray an angel announces that God has done so.
The word carnificina also means "butcher shop," and in a later version the students are mere boys and the innkeeper has become a butcher who chops them up and puts them into a pickling barrel (La Légende de Saint Nicolas). St. Nicholas later puts the pieces back together and revives the boys. The version with the barrel and butcher is the one most likely to be referenced in the art.
There are a great many narrative cycles on St. Nicholas. Fra Angelico painted one that is now in the Vatican. Another, by Lorenzetti is in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
There are also, of course, many paintings of individual episodes, especially the gold bags (example) and the many tales in the vitae of St. Nicholas saving tempest-tossed sailors. An entire category at Wikimedia Commons is devoted to these scenes. Typically we see him approaching the troubled ship from up in the sky in response to the sailors' prayers, but one Russian icon reflects instead the story of his own sea voyages (Falcone 10-12, 13-14), in which he led the sailors in prayers to calm the storm (example). Because of these legends Nicholas was the patron saint of sailors, and as such he joins St. Mark in the Doge's prayer for Venice in Tintoretto's Nicolò da Ponte Invokes the Protection of the Virgin.
Other episodes that often get pictorial treatment include Nicholas's consecration as bishop (with a corner grouping celebrating his care of children) and his restoration of goods stolen from a Jew.
SAINT NICHOLAS TODAY
Countless books, articles, and web pages study the development from St. Nicholas of the character known variously as Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, Sinterklaas, etc. This is an interesting subject, and I encourage the reader to pursue it on his or her own.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-10-28, 2016-11-11.