Saint Nicholas: The Iconography

In Myra, a metropolis in Lycia, the natal day Not his birthday but the day he died and was "born again" into Heaven of St. Nicholas, Bishop and Confessor. Many miraculous signs are told of him. A memorable one is that when some men condemned to death prayed to him he appeared in a vision to the Emperor Constantine and persuaded him, by both counsels and threats, to have mercy on them. – Roman Martyrology for December 6


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, many images, especially early ones, picture the saint vested as a bishop but without a mitre. (Abbots are with a crozier but not mitre, but they do not wear liturgical vestments.) Even a mitre in some other part of the composition, as in the first picture at right, is rare. In Eastern art, where bishops are usually bareheaded, 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 Mary appears to be restoring Nicholas's pallium to him.


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 has lost everything and fears he will have to prostitute the girls. Nicholas comes surreptitiously to the man's window three nights in a row, and each night he tosses in a bag of gold.

In rare cases 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.


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 (image), and gives the consul a thorough scolding.

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 (carnificina in the Latin) 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 .


In another episode in the Legend the sailors in a storm-tossed ship pray to Nicholas for help even though he is a living person. A vision of the bishop appears and begins to help them in their work "and anon the tempest ceased."


There are a great many narrative cycles on St. Nicholas (example) and many others depicting individual episodes. The story of the gold bags is especially popular (example), as is the miracle of the tempest-tossed sailors. In the latter, we typically see Nicholas approaching the troubled ship from up in the sky in response to the sailors' prayers. In another legend the saint is himself a passenger and leads the sailors in prayer – to good effect, naturally (Falcone, 10-12). This is the story behind this Russian icon. Because of these and similar 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.


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, 2017-12-18.


St. Nicholas is almost always portrayed bareheaded and with a crozier, and usually in an alb and chasuble. (This mosaic is at St. Mark's in Venice – See description page)

Three gold balls are the most common attribute of St. Nicholas. (From San Nicolò dei Mendicoli – See description page)

St. Nicholas seated on his epis­c­opal throne (cir­ca 1500). The tub and boys serve as an at­tri­bute iden­ti­fy­ing him. (See the de­scrip­tion page)




  • St. Nicholas lived in the 4th century.


  • Sometimes called St. Nicholas of Myra because he was bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor.
  • After that city fell to the Turks his relics were translated to Bari, in Italy, so he is also known as St. Nicholas of Bari.