“If anything happens to God, we have always got St Nicholas”
Throughout the Christian churches, it is difficult to think of a Saint as well-loved as St Nicholas the Wonder-Worker, honoured on Dec 6th and every Thursday of the week. A fourth-century Bishop of Myra famous for defending Orthodoxy against heresy during the First Ecumenical Council, there are also numerous miracles associated with his life. However it is the miracles wrought after his repose, even up to the present day, that lead St Nicholas to be honoured as a “Wonder-worker” and for many a cherished heavenly pastor of an earthly flock.
At the top of this post is the oldest surviving icon of St Nicholas, painted in Constantinople sometime during the 10th century. It is currently stored in the monastery of St Catherine in Sinai. Later icons of St Nicholas show him slightly older than here, with whiter hair and a receding hair-line.
St Nicholas is dressed as a bishop, characterized by the white stole embroidered with crosses over his shoulders. Called an omophorion in Greek, omophor in Slavic, and pallium in Latin, the bishop’s stole represents the lost sheep carried over the shoulders of the Good Shepherd (John 10:1-21) and thus signifies the bishop’s pastoral role. In St Nicholas’ time, it would probably have been made from lamb’s wool.
As a bishop, St Nicholas also holds a copy of the Gospels in his left hand. Another ministry of the Church’s bishops is to preserve and proclaim the Gospel (see: “Gospel Book” in The meaning of objects held by Saints in Icons). In later Russian icons, the Gospel book can be shown open, and when it is a variant of Luke 6:17 is usually written upon it, the prelude to Christ’s Sermon on the Plain. His right hand is not shown in a blessing in the 10th-century icon, but is depicted this way in near-contemporary icons of the Saint (and other bishop-saints).
In medallions around the border of the Icon are the busts of Christ and His Saints. Christ Himself is in the centre at the top, flanked by the Apostles Peter (left) and Paul (right). On either side of St Nicholas are four Warrior-Saints, dressed in the Roman Imperial armour and cloaks of their time, holding spears and swords. On the left are the martyrs Demetrius and Theodore Stratelates, whilst on the right are the martyrs George and Procopius of Scythopolis. At the bottom are three Holy Unmercenaries (healers): Cosmas, Panteleimon, and Damian.
None of these Saints particularly relate to the life of St Nicholas, but taken together they can be regarded as comprising the different ranks of the Sainthood: the Apostles, the Martyrs, the Holy-Warriors, and the Healers are all represented here, overlooked by Jesus Christ. At the centre of all these famous Saints (and they were all incredibly well-revered in the 10th century) is St Nicholas. He is therefore shown not only as the archetypal Bishop, but the archetypal Saint. The icon represents what the faithful in the ancient Church thought of Nicholas of Myra, and such reverence is preserved in later icons too.
The truth of thy deeds
hath revealed thee to thy flock as a canon of faith,
an icon of meekness,
and a teacher of abstinence;
for this thou hast achieved the heights by humility,
riches by poverty,
O Father and Hierarch Nicholas,
intercede with Christ God that our souls may be saved.
-Hymn for St Nicholas (and the basic hymns for all holy hierachs: that’s how archetypal St Nicholas is)
The St Nicholas Center – a wealth of information on the Saint.