The rapid spread of Christianity in the first centuries of the last millennium also saw the rise in representations of holy figures for worship and veneration. This tradition developed over time, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox Church, but is evident in the early days of the emerging religion. While subjects usually consisted of representations of Christ, Mary, archangels, and saints, other subjects taken from holy scriptures and the history of the early church were used. In a time when the majority of believers were illiterate, the icon became a powerful tool for worship and spreading the teachings of the church. Used for private and public worship, icons could be included in small chapels for individual adoration, or grouped in impressive displays called iconostasis separating the nave from the sanctuary in a church.
Saint Nicholas was an early Archbishop of Myra in Lycia during the 4th century, in what is now present-day Turkey. Although the cult of Saint Nicholas was established by the 6th century, much of the factual records of his life are circumspect, relying mainly on a biography written in the 9th century nearly five hundred years after his death. Many miracles are attributed to his intercession, and he became known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. His popularity grew to make him one of the most recognizable of the early saints, especially in the Eastern Christian churches. He is the patron saint of sailors, children, fishermen, merchants, brewers, pawnbrokers, and the falsely accused, and in modern western Christmas celebrations Saint Nicholas has transformed into Santa Claus or Saint Nick, based most likely on the legend of the three bags of gold he donated anonymously as dowries for three poor young women to save them from degradation.
This large icon of Saint Nicholas is a known as a Vita, showing a portrait of the subject as well as important scenes from his life. In the central panel he is typically depicted half-length with a bald head and white bead, looking straight-on and wearing the bishop’s omophorion. He holds a gospel in his left hand, his right hand raised in blessing. The dominant image is enclosed by a border comprising eighteen hagiographical scenes from his life, chronicling his birth, priesthood and investiture as bishop, miracles, and death. It was painted on a wood panel in the 16th century in Russia, and is attributed to the Tver school of painters, whose simple compositional directness and fine white highlights emphasising the features are characteristic of the style. Part of a group of icons brought to sale from a private collection, the Vita Icon of Saint Nicholas is a highlight to be offered in Lyon & Turnbull’s forthcoming Five Centuries: Furniture, Paintings & Works of Art from 1600 auction and a compelling example of this traditional art form.
Dates for your Diary
VIEWING | Sat 10 & Sun 11 November, 12 noon to 4pm | Mon 12 & Tues 13 October,
10.00am to 5pm | Morning of sale from 9am
AUCTION | Five Centuries: Furniture, Paintings & Works of Art from 1600 |
14th November 2018 | 10am in Edinburgh
LOCATION | 33 Broughton Place, Edinburgh, EH1 3RR