Saint Nicholas: The Iconography

In Myra, a metropolis in Lycia, the natal day Not his birthday but the day he died and was "born again" into Heaven of St. Nicholas, Bishop and Confessor. Many miraculous signs are told of him. A memorable one is that when some men condemned to death prayed to him he appeared in a vision to the Emperor Constantine and persuaded him, by both counsels and threats, to have mercy on them. – Roman Martyrology for December 6

According to one legend, at the Council of Nicea St. Nicholas was so angered by the Arian heresy that he slapped one of its defenders on the cheek. As punishment he was forbidden to wear his episcopal insignia. Christ and the Virgin Mary eventually restored the insignia, but artists in the West often reference the episode by picturing him with a crozier but not a mitre, as in the first and second pictures at right.1 Other images will have Mary restoring the saint's episcopal omophorion (the scarf-like vestment worn by Orthodox bishops) while Christ brings him a book (example).


The second and most common feature of St. Nicholas portraits is a set of three gold balls. In the Golden Legend the saint helps a father of three daughters who has lost everything and fears he will have to prostitute the girls. Nicholas comes surreptitiously to the man's window three nights in a row, and each night he tosses in a bag of gold.

In rare cases this story is referenced by a purse or bag hanging from the saint's hand (example). But a mere bag is not very expressive, so instead most artists use three gold balls, one for each night's gift. Usually the balls are on a closed book in his left hand (example), but occasionally they are to the side (example). Sometimes the book is open, in one case to a page in which the saint introduces himself to the viewer.


The third way of identifying Nicholas is by including in the image a tub with three boys, as in the last picture at right. The story of the tub appears to derive from an episode in the early vitae about three innocent soldiers who are unjustly condemned to death by a corrupt consul. Nicholas arrives just in time to the carnificina (execution-place), rescues them (image), and gives the consul a thorough scolding.

The story is in the Golden Legend, but even before Voragine new versions had changed the young nobles into students who are killed but miraculously restored to life. In the play Tres Clerici of about 1200 (Dronke, 70-77), an innkeeper kills three students for their money. Later, St. Nicholas comes to the inn (carnificina in the Latin) and urges him to repent and pray with him that God bring the students back to life. After they pray an angel announces that God has done so.

The word carnificina also means "butcher shop," and in a later version the students are mere boys and the innkeeper has become a butcher who chops them up and puts them into a pickling barrel (La Légende de Saint Nicolas). St. Nicholas later puts the pieces back together and revives the boys. The version with the barrel and butcher is the one most likely to be referenced in the art .


In another episode in the Legend the sailors in a storm-tossed ship pray to Nicholas for help even though he is a living person. A vision of the bishop appears and begins to help them in their work "and anon the tempest ceased."


There are a great many narrative cycles on St. Nicholas (example) and many others depicting individual episodes. The story of the gold bags is especially popular (example), as is the miracle of the tempest-tossed sailors. In the latter, we typically see Nicholas approaching the troubled ship from up in the sky in response to the sailors' prayers. In another legend the saint is himself a passenger and leads the sailors in prayer – to good effect, naturally (Falcone, 10-12). This is the story behind this Russian icon. Because of these and similar legends Nicholas was the patron saint of sailors, and as such he joins St. Mark in the Doge's prayer for Venice in Tintoretto's Nicolò da Ponte Invokes the Protection of the Virgin.

Other episodes that often get pictorial treatment include Nicholas's consecration as bishop (with a corner grouping celebrating his care of children), the cheated Jew,2 and his restoration of goods stolen from a Jew.


Countless books, articles, and web pages study the development from St. Nicholas of the character known variously as Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, Sinterklaas, etc. This is an interesting subject, and I encourage the reader to pursue it on his or her own.

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-10-28, 2016-11-11, 2017-12-18.


St. Nicholas is often portrayed bareheaded and with a crozier. (This mosaic is at St. Mark's in Venice – See description page)

Three gold balls are the most common attribute of St. Nicholas. (From San Nicolò dei Mendicoli – See description page)

St. Nicholas seated on his epis­c­opal throne (cir­ca 1500). The tub and boys serve as an at­tri­bute iden­ti­fy­ing him. (See the de­scrip­tion page)


  • Three gold balls
  • Tub with three boys


  • First half of the 12th century: "St. Leonard's Cupola," at the south end of the crossing at St. Mark's, Venice, has mosaic portraits of St. Nicholas, St. Leonard, St. Clement, and one other.
  • Mid-12th century: In this icon Mary and Christ bring St. Nicholas his omophorion and a book.
  • Circa 1180: In Apuleia, near Venice, a St. Nicholas fresco modeled on Eastern images of the saint, with an omophorion rather than a crozier to signify his rank as a bishop.
  • 14th century: Detail from a window in Regensburg: St. Nicholas.
  • 1327-32: Ambrogio Lorenzetti's narrative cycle with four episodes from the Golden Legend.
  • 1344: Detail from Guariento di Arpo's Coronation of the Virgin altarpiece.
  • Mid-14th century: In this portrait by Lorenzo Veneziano Nicholas wears the omophorion restored to him by the Virgin Mary.
  • 1371: On the right in Giovanni Bonsi's Madonna Enthroned with Saints
  • 15th century: With Saints Maurice and Roch on Strasbourg Cathedral's St. Maurice altarpiece.
  • 15th century: Portrait with St. John Gualbert.
  • Undated, possibly 15th century: Predella panel: Nicholas in the vestments of an Orthodox bishop.
  • 1539-40: St. Nicholas and his gold balls figure in Salviati's Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints.
  • Late 16th or early 17th century: Palma il Giovane's St. Nicholas altarpiece painted for a Venice church.
  • Late 17th century: At St. Nicholas Cathedral, Ljubljana, SloveniaLate 17th century: a ceiling fresco, Glory of St. Nicholas and A narrative series on the saint's life.
  • Early 18th century: Statue at Stift Sankt Florian, Austria.
  • 1753: In the margin of a Mexican nun's badge.
  • Undated: Statue in Kelheim's Franziskanerkirche.



  • St. Nicholas lived in the 4th century.


  • Sometimes called St. Nicholas of Myra because he was bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor.
  • After that city fell to the Turks his relics were translated to Bari, in Italy, so he is also known as St. Nicholas of Bari.



1 Molanus (390-91) quotes from the legend but objects that Nicholas's name does not appear among those said to have been at the Council. Moreover, according to Mellinkoff (94), bishops did not wear mitres until the 11th century, and then only in the West. Also see Butler, IV, 504 and Tradigo, 308.

2 After dishonestly swearing his innocence on St. Nicholas's altar the cheat is run over by a cart. This episode is pictured in a 12th-century window in York Minster, England.