Russian Artworks Foreign Italian Painting Gothic Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Four Stories from the Life of St Nicholas

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Four Stories from the Life of St Nicholas

Date: circa 1330
Media: Tempera on wood
Dimensions: 96 x 52.5 cm, 92 x 49 cm
Ownership: Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Church of San Procolo, Florence
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Four Stories from the Life of St Nichol...

Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Four Stories from the Life of St Nicholas was painted around 1330. It originally hung in the Church of San Procolo in Florence, where it was seen by Giorgio Vasari in the mid-sixteenth century. The two panels were presumably painted as side wing of a triptych which had a figure of St Nicholas in the central panel (which has disappeared) during Lorenzetti’s second visit to Florence between 1327 and 1332, or later. Another possibility is that the panels made up a tabernacle door.

The upper scene of the left panel (96 x 52.5 cm) represents the resurrection of the dead child. In the lower scene St Nicholas, as bishop of Myra saves the town from famine by miraculously drying and multiplying the sacks of wheat which had fallen into the sea. The upper scene of the right panel (92 x 49 cm) represents St Nicholas giving dowry to three virgins. An impoverished nobleman is ready to prostitute his three daughters as no one will accept them in marriage without dowries. To save them from such a dishonourable fate, Nicholas, on three consecutive nights, throws each of them a bag full of gold through their window.  The lower scene shows Nicholas' consecration as bishop.

Once part of a larger polyptych, the episodes represented are (in clockwise order) The Resuscitation of a Boy Strangled by the Devil, The Saint’s Gift of Gold to a Destitute Family, The Consecration of Nicholas as Bishop of Myra and The Freeing of Myra from Famine. They are small but not minor works of art, which include what some art historians believe to be the earliest seascape in Italian Renaissance painting.

More than a thousand years separated Ambrogio Lorenzetti from his subject, who is said to have been born in in AD 271 in Patara, a port town in what is now modern Turkey. St Nicholas’s cult is as celebrated as his history is obscure. The main (and entirely uncorroborated) events of his life were usually said to have involved persecution and imprisonment by the Emperor Diocletian and the working of numerous miracles. His prominence in the Christian canon of saints was enhanced after 1087, when enterprising merchants from the Italian town of Bari stole some bones said to be St Nicholas’s remains from a church in Constantinople. The Western Church then took St Nicholas to its heart, building numerous churches to him and ingeniously elaborating his myth. Jacopo da Voragine, whose mid-thirteenth century hagiographical encyclopedia The Golden Legend became the patternbook of the principal saints’ lives, fixed the popular image of Nicholas; and it was on his apocryphal account that Ambrogio based his paintings.

The tale of St Nicholas rescuing the people of Myra from starvation is described in some detail in The Golden Legend: “It was so on a time that all the province suffered great famine. And then this holy man heard say that certain ships of wheat were arrived in the haven. And anon he went thither and prayed the mariners that they would succour the perished at least with an hundred muyes of wheat of every ship. And they said: Father, we dare not, for it is meted and measured, and we must give reckoning thereof in the garners of the Emperor of Alexandria. And the holy man said to them: Do this that I have said to you, and I promise in the truth of God, that it shall not be lessed or minished when ye shall come to the garners.”

Lorenzetti shows the bishop twice, once at the gates of Myra and once returning from his successful mission, standing imperturbably upright in a small boat nearing the shore. In the background all is energy and activity. Boats are being loaded with grain. To the right the first consignment whizzes into view in the form of two vigorous rowers, straining every sinew, at the prow of a boat cut off by the edge of the composition (a daring and unusual instance of cropping in early Renaissance art, which perfectly conveys the necessary sense of emergency). Suspended above the scene, silhouetted against an expanse of gold which signifies not the mundane sky but the vault of heaven, a pair of angels armed with grain sacks miraculously replenish the Emperor’s convoy in accordance with Nicholas’s promise.

Many modern viewers looking at Ambrogio’s four panels may be inclined to doubt St Nicholas’s credentials as the original Santa Claus, or Father Christmas. At first glance he would seem to bear precious little resemblance to the jolly rotund figure, complete with reindeer and bulging sack of gifts, familiar to children today. But all the essential elements of the legend of Santa Claus are, in fact, to be found here.

The scene diagonally opposite The Freeing of Myra from Famine depicts an act of charity. Noticing that one of his neighbours had forced his three daughters into prostitution, the scandalised saint is said to have thrown gold through the man’s window. Ambrogio shows us both the secret donation and the grateful reaction of the startled recipients. In other versions of the legend, the money is said to have landed inside the reluctant whores’ stockings, hung up to dry. Hence the modern custom of hanging up stockings at Christmas in expectation of surreptitiously delivered gifts.

Below, Ambrogio represents Nicholas’s ordination as a bishop, whose red robes are the origin of Santa Claus’s red cloak. Diagonally opposite that scene, in the most spatially complicated of all the four panels, he represents one of the saint’s posthumous miracles. A man organised a banquet to celebrate Nicholas’s feast day, but Satan knocked at the door on the day of the feast and strangled his son. Answering the distraught family’s prayers, Nicholas appeared in a vision and brought the boy back to life. Ambrogio squeezes a huge amount of incident into his image, setting the elaborate tale in a building of two floors but many stories. The raising of children from the dead, a feat performed more than once by St Nicholas in The Golden Legend, explains how he became the patron saint of little boys and girls.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Four Stories from the Life of St Nicholas hung in the Church of San Procolo from circa 1330 and has belonged to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence since 1919.

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