Symbolism and iconography

If you see an icon or statue of St. Nicholas, how do you know it’s him?

If it’s an Orthodox icon, he’ll be wearing a bishop’s stole (omophorion if you speak Greek, pallium if you prefer Latin). He’ll hold a Gospel in his left hand, and his right hand will be raised in blessing. He’ll usually have white hair, a neatly trimmed beard, and a receding hairline. And he’ll be bare-headed.  Some people say that he has a bare head because his miter was taken away after he slapped Arius. But St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great, and other bishop-saints are typically shown bare-headed as well, and they never had their miters taken from them.

And, of course, his name will be written on the icon. That’s a necessary element of an Orthodox icon. Because church imagery in the Western church tended towards statues, they don’t have the same custom. In Western art, as far as I can see, he’s always shown with a miter and crozier, and often with the Gospel as well.

But the stole and Gospel and miter and crozier only tell you that the image is a bishop. There are other elements used in religious art to signify that this bishop is St. Nicholas. Usually, these other elements reference well known stories from the life of the saint.

The Theotokos and Jesus

Sometimes, in icons, you’ll see the Theotokos and Jesus appearing in small clouds, or sometimes medallions, next to St. Nicholas. Jesus is holding a Gospel book, and the Theotokos is holding an omophorion, a bishop’s stole. These icons are referring to the story of St. Nicholas being jailed after he slapped Arius at the Council of Nicea.

Three gold balls

For example, if you see a bishop-saint holding three gold balls on top of his closed Gospel book, it’s St. Nicholas. The balls can also be on his lap, on the ground, or anywhere else in the image. Wherever you find them, these balls represent the three bags of gold that St. Nicholas gave to the widower’s three daughters. They’re also the reason that pawnbrokers use three gold balls in their signs, and why parents put oranges in children’s stockings.

Sometimes, instead of the gold balls, the image will include the three young women. This more direct representation of the story is far less common.

Anchors and ships

On the other hand, when it comes to the stories of St. Nicholas saving sailors from storms, the direct representations are more common. There are many icons and other images showing the bishop saint with a ship foundering in a storm. He might be on the ship manning the sails, or walking on or flying over the water. Occasionally, though, the reference is more subtle – an anchor, or a child holding a toy ship.

Sheaves of wheat

Sometimes you’ll see images of St. Nicholas with sheaves of wheat. These may represent the many times that St. Nicholas delivered people from famine. But since the images are mostly from Ukraine, I suspect they’re related to the Ukrainian custom of bringing sheaves of wheat into the house on Christmas eve. Of course, it doesn’t have to be either/or. Good symbols can say more than one thing at a time.

Read More

Early Life: Many of the stories of St. Nicholas’s early life seem rather odd. How are we to understand such stories?

Feast Days: There are three feast days each year in honor of St. Nicholas.

St. Nicholas is often represented in art by three gold balls, representing the three bags of gold he gave to save the widower's daughters. (Illustration from The Saint Nicholas Day Snow by Charlotte Riggle, illustrated by R.J. Hughes)

Buy the Book: The Saint Nicholas Day Snow

Shoes or stockings? Horse or sleigh? Does St. Nicholas visit on December 6 or on Christmas Eve? Will a little girl’s prayer be answered? When Elizabeth has to stay at Catherine’s house, she’s worried about her grandmother, and worried that St. Nicholas won’t find her. The grownups, though, are worried about snow.

Celebrate the wonder of St. Nicholas Day through the magic of a book: The Saint Nicholas Day Snow.

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