Fra Angelico and the Story of St. Nicholas

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by Cynthia Close

The early Italian Renaissance painter Fra Angelico (1395-1455) is considered one of the giants in the evolution of European art history. His life was surprisingly well-documented. Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), another great Renaissance Master and art historian, declared Fra Angelico to be “a rare and perfect talent.” Understanding and using linear perspective was one of Fra Angelico’s early achievements. His reputation was earned primarily for his skillful painting of frescoes and altarpieces of religious subjects, including the lives of the saints. Saint Nicholas (270-343), a fourth century Christian saint of Greek descent became a worthy subject for Fra Angelico. Credited with performing many miracles he is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, repentant thieves, children, brewers, unmarried people, and students. Born into a wealthy family, Saint Nicholas gave away most of his riches to the needy. His penchant for secret gift-giving, sometimes leaving coins in people’s shoes which were left outside their doors, is a practice still celebrated on his feast day, December 6th in some Christian communities across Europe. Saint Nicholas was a popular subject portrayed in countless paintings, books, and on Eastern Orthodox icons, so it is not surprising that Fra Angelico paid homage to his birth, life, and death by depicting him in tempera on wood panel in a series of scenes titled The Story of Saint Nicholas. This particular image shows two sections of a tryptic that were completed along with his Perugia Altarpiece now in the collection of the National Gallery of Umbria, Perugia, Italy.  

The myths and legends around St. Nicholas were brought to the United States by the Dutch colonizers. As traditions evolved, St. Nicholas gradually became separated from any religious connotations and, while the steps of the evolution remain unclear, he gradually became the secular Santa Claus of American culture.

The Story of Saint Nicholas by Fra Angelico (tempura on panel, 13×26)

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