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“A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons” explains in detail the symbolism of the key attributes of icons of Saint Nicholas.

A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons

“If anything happens to God, we have always got St Nicholas”
-Russian proverb

Throughout the Christian churches, it is difficult to think of a Saint as well-loved as St Nicholas the Wonder-Worker, honoured on Dec 6th and every Thursday of the week. A fourth-century Bishop of Myra famous for defending Orthodoxy against heresy during the First Ecumenical Council, there are also numerous miracles associated with his life. However it is the miracles wrought after his repose, even up to the present day, that lead St Nicholas to be honoured as a “Wonder-worker” and for many a cherished heavenly pastor of an earthly flock.

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Today is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, the 4th century bishop from Asia Minor who in the west is known as Santa Claus. As his feast day is quite close to the Nativity Feast, in the west the two events have become conflated in popular imagination. In the East, they are still celebrated as separate events.

Saint Nicholas was famed as a generous person, who often provided badly needed funds to the needy anonymously by dropping it through the window of the intended recipient while they slept. In one case, to save a distressed family from selling their daughters into prostitution, he dropped a purse of gold coins through their window anonymously.  He distributed his entire inheritance to the poor of his diocese. From this, the legend of the generous Saint Nicholas distributing gifts to children in their sleep arose. The Russian legendary figure, Grandfather Frost, Tovlis Babua in Georgian, replaced Saint Nicholas as the winter gift-giver during the Russian Imperial Era. Grandfather Frost now visits children at at New Year instead of on Saint Nicholas’ Day. The food associated with the feast of Saint Nicholas in Georgia, such as gozinaki, the sweet made with walnuts and honey, are now associated with New Year’s Day.

Saint Nicholas was the Patron Saint of the Russian Empire, and so his icons are ubiquitous in every Russian church and most Russian Christian homes. As the Georgian Church was forcibly incorporated into the Church of Russia during the Russian Colonial period, a certain Russian influence in Georgian iconography of Saint Nicholas may be noted. Icons of Saint Nicholas here are frequently rendered in a style closer to the Russian style (itself heavily influenced by Western European artistic norms) rather than the more Byzantine-influenced Georgian style.

Saint Nicholas was a distinguished theologian, and he participated actively in the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea, where the Arian Heresy was refuted by the Church and the Nicene Creed established as the concise exposition of the Christian Faith. He was a zealous activist against pre-existing pagan practices in his diocese and destroyed many pagan temples, converting their followers to Christianity. He was famed for his miracles during his life, and after his death, hence his moniker the Wonder-Worker.

From the Prologue of Ohrid by Saint Nikolai Velimirovch

This glorious saint, celebrated even today throughout the entire world, was the only son of his eminent and wealthy parents, Theophanes and Nona, citizens of the city of Patara in Lycia. Since he was the only son bestowed on them by God, the parents returned the gift to God by dedicating their son to Him.

St. Nicholas learned of the spiritual life from his uncle Nicholas, Bishop of Patara, and was tonsured a monk in the Monastery of New Zion founded by his uncle. Following the death of his parents, Nicholas distributed all his inherited goods to the poor, not keeping anything for himself. As a priest in Patara, he was known for his charity, even though he carefully concealed his charitable works, fulfilling the words of the Lord: Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth (Matthew 6:3).

When he gave himself over to solitude and silence, thinking to live that way until his death, a voice from on high came to him: “Nicholas, for your ascetic labor, work among the people, if thou desirest to be crowned by Me.” Immediately after that, by God’s wondrous providence, he was chosen archbishop of the city of Myra in Lycia.

Merciful, wise and fearless, Nicholas was a true shepherd to his flock. During the persecution of Christians under Diocletian and Maximian, he was cast into prison, but even there he instructed the people in the Law of God. He was present at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea [325] and, out of great zeal for the truth, struck the heretic Arius with his hand. For this act he was removed from the Council and from his archiepiscopal duties, until the Lord Christ Himself and the Most-holy Theotokos appeared to several of the chief hierarchs and revealed their approval of Nicholas.

A defender of God’s truth, this wonderful saint was ever bold as a defender of justice among the people. On two occasions, he saved three men from an undeserved sentence of death. Merciful, truthful, and a lover of justice, he walked among the people as an angel of God. Even during his lifetime, the people considered him a saint and invoked his aid in difficulties and in distress. He appeared both in dreams and in person to those who called upon him, and he helped them easily and speedily, whether close at hand or far away. A light shone from his face as it did from the face of Moses, and he, by his presence alone, brought comfort, peace and good will among men. In old age he became ill for a short time and entered into the rest of the Lord, after a life full of labor and very fruitful toil, to rejoice eternally in the Kingdom of Heaven, continuing to help the faithful on earth by his miracles and to glorify his God. He entered into rest on December 6, 343.

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