Madonna & Child with Saints
Saint Nicholas, too!
James Heard and Karly Allen, National Gallery Education, explore the legend of Saint Nicholas as they reflect on Moretto da Brescia's "Madonna and Child with Saints.
James Heard: So now we’re actually going to look at a painting that’s peopled with saints. It’s a painting by Moretto—who was a follower of Titian really, in that he works in a Titianesque style. It’s a very large altarpiece, and right at the top of the painting, identifiable very easily, is Mary with Jesus. But we’re not going to talk about all of these saints. There’s one in the corner, the right-hand corner, wearing a bishop’s mitre and cope, but it’s what’s in his hands that has intrigued Karly Allen.
Karly Allen: Saint Nicholas we’re told in the ‘Golden Legend’ became the Bishop of Myra and this is why he’s represented in bishops’ robes, but as James said, he’s holding out his hand to us and in his palm are three gold balls. This relates to the stories of Saint Nicholas as a bringer of gifts. He’s best remembered today in his new form – if you take the name of Saint Nicholas in Dutch, ‘Sinta Klaus’, which is very close, of course, to ‘Santa Clause’—but in the ‘Golden Legend’ we’re told that Saint Nicholas, a wealthy man, decided to give away his wealth. He was looking for ways to put his money to good use and he wanted to give money to the poor. He learns of a neighbour who has lost all his money and has three daughters and therefore has no money for their dowry—they will remain unmarried and he’s forced to send them into prostitution. Saint Nicholas decides to help this man by throwing a bag of money into their window and we’re told, well there are different versions—one is that he throws one bag for three consecutive nights, another story is that because there were three daughters then therefore three little bags of gold coins were sent through the window, so this is where we get the three balls from.
So here we have a saint that’s particularly connected to Christmas time and his saint’s day is on 6 December which is traditionally a period of celebration for children. He’s the patron saint of children. Together with Lucy, whose saint’s day is also in December, they really represent this period of thanksgiving and celebration—we have processions in the name of both those saints and of course Nicholas in particular has this strong connection with Christmas Day itself.
About the Painting
The original destination of this altarpiece was probably a chapel or Franciscan church dedicated to Saint Bernardino, who is shown with his monogram of the name of Jesus (IHS) and three mitres at his feet. The mitres are inscribed with the three bishoprics of Urbino, Siena and Ferrara which the saint refused to accept.
The saints include Saint Jerome (with his lion) and Saint Joseph (with his flowering staff).
Also represented are Saint Francis (showing his stigmata), Saint Nicholas of Bari (holding three gold spheres), Saint Catherine of Alexandria (accepting a ring from Christ, in allusion to her vision of a 'mystic marriage'), and Saint Clare holding the monstrance.
From the National Gallery, London, England. Gallery Insight: James Heard and Karly Allen, National Gallery Education: Podcast with text, Episode Twenty Six, December 2008.
Image used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.