Our last two art posts have been about the Nativity, now we’re turning to St Nicholas. This is stained glass from the south Chancel window of the Holy Trinity Church in Balsham, England. It’s a hidden gem near Cambridge but tucked quietly away off the well-beaten tourist path. It’s also recent, completed in 1932, if memory serves.
The dominant figure in the scene is St Nicholas but not the one we associate with our modern Christmas celebration. It’s closer to the Nicholas of history, the 4th century Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. I’m really captivated by his expression and the brilliant colors of his robes. You may be wondering about those three ghostly-looking boys in the foreground. Well, one of the most venerated moments in the Nicholas legend is when he is said to have raised these three boys from the dead. If at first the tub they’re standing in strikes you as a puzzling detail, I promise you it’s also a morbid one. That’s because those adventurous youth had fallen victim to a child murderer, who had also dismembered their bodies and pickled them in a tub of brine. When grieving families could not find their lost sons, they brought the disappearance to the Bishop’s attention. Known for his paternal concern for children, Nicholas determined to help find them. After some inquiries, he feared the worst and his suspicion fell on a local shop keeper. Entering the premises, Nicholas could sense the restless spirits of the boys almost instantly and he demanded to see the killer’s salting tub. With hardly a glance at the grotesque sight within, he touched the edge of the tub and prayed the three boys back from death.
If you’re looking for a new spin on Santa Claus this season, I guess this qualifies. Just know that I’m not spinning this yarn to Salem when we tuck her in on Christmas Eve. I may consider the story of Nicholas in general, though. Our modern conception of St Nick is a cultural symbol of one who gives without thought of getting something in return. Just dabbling in the legend of St Nicholas makes it easy to see how he became part of that symbol. The historical man who became the soul of Santa Claus was apparently born wealthy but lost his parents to an epidemic. His inheritance was substantial but he spent it all assisting the poor, sick, or suffering. Stories of his benevolence abound. It makes me think of a professor I once had who denied that altruism existed. She insisted that everyone is motivated in some way by self-interest. Maybe. But even if we only aspire to the selflessly compassionate life and then live it only imperfectly, that deserves at least some credit.