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The First Miracle of St. Nicholas

The First Miracle of St. Nicholas, stained glass panel, about 1520-5. Museum no. 213-1908. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The First Miracle of St. Nicholas, stained glass panel, about 1520-5. Museum no. 213-1908. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra

This stained glass panel is from a series depicting scenes from the life of St Nicholas. The donor was Nicolaas Ruterius, Bishop of Arras 1501-9, who was previously a priest in Louvain. The panels were originally installed in the Great Cloister of the Charterhouse of Louvain. It was very common in the Middle Ages for people to have a particular devotion to the saint after whom they were named.

The baby St Nicholas is shown standing up in his bath just after birth, much to the amazement of his mother and the midwife. This is the first of six surviving panels dedicated to the saint's life from the Charterhouse of Louvain. They were paid for by Nicolaas Ruterius, Bishop of Arras, whose coat of arms is displayed alongside.

St Nicholas was the model for Father Christmas and Santa Claus. His legend relates that he was the son of wealthy parents who lived a pious Christian life. When they died, Nicholas distributed his wealth to those in need. Because of these acts of charity and gift-giving, he became the beloved figure known in all Christian countries as the bringer of gifts to good children. This legendary prototype of Santa Claus was in fact a bishop of Myra, in Turkey, in the first decades of the 4th century. He probably attended the first church council, called by the Emperor Constantine, at Nicaea in 325. He died in 345 or 352 and was apparently buried in the church at Myra.

The veneration of Nicholas developed early on in the eastern lands of Turkey and Greece. By the 10th century he was venerated by the emperors in Germany. In the 1070s invaders known as the Seljuk Turks overran Myra and the surrounding lands. Sea merchants from Italy took advantage of this chaotic situation and appropriated the bones from the monks who were guarding them. In 1087 the relics arrived in the Italian town of Bari, where they still remain. Pilgrims still visit the tomb of St Nicholas and miracles have been recorded as taking place there.

The Charterhouse in Louvain, a monastery of the Carthusian Order, was founded at the end of the 15th century by the dukes of Burgundy. It was financed with donations from ducal family members, as well as from clerics of the surrounding areas, such as Nicolaas Ruterius, and from local residents.

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