Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Celebrating St Nicholas

The other evening an acquaintance who was born as a Catholic in Italy, but who despite ( or because of?) a Jesuit education and following settling here in England and research in Germany lapsed into Anglicanism, and a great devotion to Martin Luther ( he carries a copy of the Ninety Five Theses in his pocket) asked me why we did not celebrate St Nicholas in England as is done on the continent. I did not forbear to point out that this was a legacy of the baleful effects of the Protestantism into which he had fallen.

There is a wonderful array of information about the cult of St Nicholas and links to a huge selection of images of him created over the centuries on the website of the St Nicholas Center which I would recommend this as a resource to anyone interested in his cult. Here is a painting which I particularly liked, with iths wonderful detail, from the 125 paintings they feature, not to mention icons, sculptures, illuminations and stained glass:


St Nicholas
The master of St Lucy, 1486-93
Groeninge Museum Bruges

The saint sits frontally on a vaulted stone throne which stands in an open gallery. He is blessing the spectator. The handle of his staff is adorned with the images of St Lawrence (with the grid), St Mary Magdalene (vase) and St James the Less (fuller's club). On each side of the throne can be seen a piece of the arcade which opens out onto a landscape with the panorama of Bruges. From left to right we can recognize the towers of Our Lady's, St Saviour's, the Oosterlingenhuis (house of the German hanza), the belfry, the Poorters' Lodge, and to the right of the canopy the Jerusalem Church. Scholars in the 1950s made out the panel to be the centrepiece of a St Nicholas retable with fixed wings which each contained two scenes from the life of this saint on top of one another. In this manner it was possible to identify the enthroned bishop as St Nicholas. The scenes portray to the left the charity of St Nicholas and the miracle of the grain, and to the right the murder of the three children and their resurrection from the salt-tub.

Donated as a Van Eyck, the central panel was very soon ascribed to the Master of the Legend of St Lucy. As with another series of panels by this master, as well as by his contemporary and fellow-citizen the Master of the Legend of St Ursula, a date has been suggested on the basis of the stage of building of the carefully portrayed Bruges belfry. Seeing that the octagonal crown with the wooden steeple was built between 1482 and 1486 and, after the fire of 1493, rebuilt from 1499 to 1502, a painting in which the belfry has this superstructure could have been made between 1486 and 1493 or after 1502. The former dating seems to be more probable.

There is a remarkable similarity in composition and conception between the enthroned St Nicholas by the Lucy Master and the panel with Santo Domingo de Silos, painted between 1477 and 1477 for the church of that name in Daroca (Spain) by Bartolomé Bermejo (now Madrid, Museo del Prado). This Santo Domingo de Silos retable was also originally flanked by two horizontally split panels. It could be assumed that the St Nicholas altarpiece was a Spanish commission in which Bermejo's retable in Daroca was recommended as a model.

Image:Web Gallery of Art

Last year I posted about the Relics of St Nicholas and this year I thought I would link to a site about one of the finest medieval churches dedicated to St Nicholas in England - indeed one of the 'must see' parish churches of the country - St Nicholas Stanford on Avon in Northamptonshire. There is a fine set of expandable images of the church here. The church contains a rich array of tombs from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century, fine medieval glass, screenwork and a seventeenth century pipe-organ. One previous incumbent was William Laud, the future Archbishop of Canterbury.

When I first visited it I found a connection to my home area. In the middle ages the manor and advowson was held by Selby Abbey in Yorkshire and in 1430 the newly elected Abbot John Cave (1429-36) leased the manor to his nephew, who like the Abbot, came from South Cave in the East Riding. The Cave family descendents went on to buy the manor at the dissolution and still live at Stanford Hall - they now hold the revived Braye barony created by King Henry VII.

Stanford is a small village supporting a great treasure in its parish church - I recall a television appeal years ago to raise money for its restoration. Sadly it is now in a union of parishes, and only has a service once a month on the first Sunday plus ones at Christmas and Easter.

Together with a visit to the delightful late seventeenth century Stanford Hall, with a fine collection of Jacobite portraits and adisplay about the first modern attempts to produce powered flight in England in 1898, is an ideal place for an afternoon out exploring the treasures still to be found in the countryside. On a winter day something to look forward to for next summer perhaps?

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