Saint Nicholas of Tolentino: The Iconography

In Tolentino, Piceno, the passing away of St. Nicholas, Confessor, of the Order of Hermits of St. Augustine. – Roman Martyrology for 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 a dish with a small roast bird and two live birds.
Detail from the image at right: A roast bird and two live birds on the plate that the saint is holding.
The birds refer to an account in which the saint was ill and his prior The head of a local community of friars insisted that he "put his hand on" the roast partridge brought to him to ease his sickness. Nicholas put his hand on the partridge, but instead of eating he prayed over it and the bird came to life and flew away (image).5

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2017-07-12.

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The sunburst: Detail from a portrait by Giovanni di Paolo


Nicholas in his black Augustinian habit, with the lily and the plate of birds: Detail from Joos van Cleve, Crucifixion with Saints and Donor.


Chapter 7 of Peter's Vita recounts a number of miracles Nicholas performed for persons who were deaf, blind, or even dead. In this painting, he revives a boy who had died just after birth and before the midwives could fetch water to baptize him. See the description page.

MORE IMAGES

  • 15th century: Statue of St. Nicholas of Tolentino in Santo Stefano, Venice.

DATES

  • Feast day: September 10
  • 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 Acta Sanctorum, loc. cit., 643.