Saint Nicholas of Tolentino: The Iconography
SEPTEMBER 10
A sunburst, usually with a child's face in it, is a common attribute of St. Nicholas of Tolentino, often on the breast of his black Augustinian habit. The fašade of the Basilica of St. Nicholas in Tolentino has a huge sunburst, also with a child's face in the center. The sunburst may refer to a vision of a star that led him to Tolentino, where he spent much of his career.1 The child's face may reflect the episode in Peter of Monte Rubiano's Vita S. Nicolai Tolentinatis where the saint recounts having seen the face of the Christ Child in the host at Mass.2

Giorgi, Saints in Art, says he is sometimes seen with a flowering lily branch or a crucifix.3 The portrait at right does show him with a lily branch and also with a dish of bread to which two birds have just alighted. The bread surely refers to the Augustinian custom, traced to Nicholas, of blessing bread and distributing it to the poor.4 The Acta Sanctorum devotes 14 pages to miracles ascribed to such bread.5

As for the birds, none appear in the Vita. In the bread miracles no birds come to the bread, although one episode involves demons who assail a ship at sea in the form of large black birds, and who actually flee the bread when it is cast on the waters.6

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University

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The sunburst: Detail from a portrait by Giovanni di Paolo


Nicholas in his black Augustinian habit, with the blessed bread: Detail from Joos van Cleve, Crucifixion with Saints and Donor.


Statue of St. Nicholas of Tolentino in Santo Stefano, Venice (See description page)

DATES

  • Lived 1246 to 1306
  • Canonized in 1446

NOTES
1 Acta Sanctorum September vol. 3, 652.
2 Ibid., 645.
3 Giorgi, 288.
4 Butler, III, 526.
5 Op. cit., 730-34.
6 Ibid., 734 ¶497.