He Raised 100 Children from the Dead
by Lucy Gordan
The famous Augustinian thaumaturgist or performer of miracles, St. Nicholas of Tolentino, died on September 10, 1305, hence also his feast day. One of several events to celebrate this 700th anniversary is the exhibition: "Image and Mystery: The Sun, Book, and Lily." On until October 9, some ninety works of art, dating from the fourteenth through the twentieth century, depict the saint and his iconography in the Braccio di Carlo Magno, the passageway from St. Peter's Square through which Charlemagne passed to his coronation in the Basilica on Christmas Day 800 AD. They include paintings by Raphael, Perugino, Guercino, Salvator Rosa, and Luca Giordano, sculptures by Pietro Lombardo and Alessandro Algardi, as well as prints, miniatures in illuminated manuscripts, and gold and silver relics including one (after 1446) conserving the Saint's blood on loan from the Church of St. Stephen in Venice.
Invoked against fires, Nicholas of Tolentino is the patron of sick animals, mariners, souls in Purgatory, babies, mothers, and the dying. He was born in 1245 at Sant' Angelo in the diocese of Fermo in answer to his mother's prayers. Childless and middle-aged, Amata de Guidani, and her husband, Compagnonus de Guaratti, had made a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Nicholas of Bari to ask for a son whom she promised to dedicate to God's service.
Already as a small boy Nicholas gave unusual signs of saintliness. From seven years of age on he would hide in caves and pray like the hermits he observed in the Apennine Mountains near his home, in the Marches region, from where many of the works of art on display also originate. Then at age eighteen, Nicholas joined an Augustinian friary and was ordained at age 25. On account of his gentle manner his superiors entrusted him with the daily feeding of the poor at the monastery gates; at times he was so free with the friary's provisions that the procurator begged the superior to check Nicholas' generosity.
A few years later, in 1274, to be exact, while praying one day he had a vision of angels wearing white robes and chanting: "To Tolentino, to Tolentino," so he took off for this small town, not far from his birthplace, which would eventually give him his surname. He stayed there for the next thirty years until his death in 1305.
During the Middle Ages, Tolentino, like most towns in central Italy, was being torn apart by civil war between the rival Guelphs, who supported the Pope, and Ghibellines, who supported the Holy Roman Emperor, in their struggle for control of Italy. Nicholas was primarily a pastor to his flock. He tried his best to make peace, and visited the sick and condemned prisoners. According to his biographer St. Antonine, Nicholas always told those he helped: "Say nothing of this. Give thanks to God, not to me. I am only a vessel of clay, a poor sinner."
Nicholas led of a life of self-deprivation lengthy fasts which caused him to have hallucinations. Once, when he was ill and very weak, the Virgin Mary, accompanied by Saint Augustine and his mother Saint Monica, appeared to him. They told Nicholas he would recover his strength if he ate bread dipped in water. He followed their instructions and was soon healing his sick parishioners with the same cure. This gave rise to the custom of "Saint Nicholas Bread" rolls soaked in water that are eaten by the sick and by women in labor.
Another interesting anecdote of Nicholas' life recounts that a year before his death a star usually depicted as the sun started to precede him wherever he went and that this same star continues to appear on the anniversary of his death.
When he died after a long illness, almost immediately, as has recently happened for Pope John Paul II, people began petitioning for his canonization, which took place on June 5 (Pentecost), 1446, during the reign of Pope Eugene IV. Over 300 miracles were recognized by the Congregation.
Concerning his miracles, Nicholas is reported to have resurrected over 100 dead children, including several who had drowned together. Another time, when nine passengers on a sinking ship asked for his help, he appeared in the sky, wearing the black Augustinian habit, radiating golden light, and holding a lily in his left hand. With his right hand he quelled the storm. Another apparition of the saint once saved the burning Doge's Palace in Venice by throwing a piece of blessed bread on the flames. Speaking of blessings, Nicholas, a vegetarian, was once served a roasted partridge; when he made the sign of the cross over it, the bird revived and flew out the window.
Nicholas's relics (his arms), now in Tolentino's Chapel of the Holy Arms, were not rediscovered until 1926, although in earlier times they were known to exude blood when the Church was in danger. The most famous seepage occurred from May 29 to September 1, 1699, but is said to have begun only 40 years after Nicholas's death. It seems a German friar seeking relics for his native land broke into the Saint's tomb and hacked off his arms. The friar fled into the night, only to find himself the next morning back at the tomb running in place and holding the two bleeding arms. So as to prevent further attempts of theft, the friars then hid the rest of St. Nicholas's body so well that it has not been found to this day.
"Image and Mystery: The Sun, Book, and Lily" is divided into three sections. The first concerns the saint's iconography and includes works of art portraying the saint. Of particular interest here are a processional standard (1753), now in the Cathedral Museum and Treasury in Monza, and a wooden panel by Giovanni di Paolo (c. 1445) on loan from the Robert Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan in New York.
The second illustrates episodes from the Saint's life and his miracles. Here altar-pieces, triptychs, and predelle, broken up, sold separately over time, and belonging to different Italian and international museums, have been reassembled for the first time in centuries. Also on loan from the Metropolitan are two oils by Benevenuto Tisi, alias "Il Garofalo," depicting the resurrection of a child and the miracle of the partridge (1520). Paintings of these same miracles by Raphael (1500), now in the Detroit Institute of Arts, are also on display.
The third section is of paintings of important sacred scenes such as the Nativity, the Crucifixion and the Assumption, which include the presence of St. Nicholas of Tolentino. These works of art document the enormous diffusion of this saint's cult and the ever-increasing importance of the Augustinian Order and its various branches from the fifteenth through the eighteenth century.
"It was not easy to decide which works of art to display," confessed curator and vice-director of the National Gallery of the Marches and of the Ducal Palace at Urbino, Maria Giannatiempo Lopez, "because there were so many to choose from. We wanted to include pieces that would appeal to the general public, to the art historian, and to the Saint's numerous devotees. To make this exhibition a unique and memorable event, we were particularly anxious to reassemble here as many works as possible."
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