St Nicholas is the most widely revered saint in Orthodoxy. The Russians have a saying 'If anything happens to God, we have always got St Nicholas'. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (Kazhdan ed., 1991, Vol 2, p. 1469) his cult, which only became popular in the 9th century, gave him a prominence ‘second only to the Virgin’.
The supposed historical Nicholas was a bishop in the 4th century. According to tradition, he was present at the Council of Nicaea where he attacked the heretic Arius so violently that fellow bishops had to restrain him. Some thought this behaviour was unsuitable but legend recounts that Christ and the Mother of God appeared to Nicholas that night in a dream, endorsing his conduct. This vision is often referred to by the miniatures of Christ and the Mother of God sometimes on either side of the saint. The events from the life of St Nicholas, seen on biographical icons of the saint, amalgamate miracles from the lives of several historical and non-historical persons, most notably the 6th century St Nicholas of Sion.
In 1087 the saint’s relics were removed from Myra (modern Demre in Southern Turkey) by Genoese merchants and brought to Bari in southern Italy where his shrine is today.
An interesting comparison can be made with a well-known icon dating from the 15th century in the Holy Monastery of St John the Theologian on Patmos1 (Fig. 1). That icon was in an equally fragile condition and is now transferred from its wood panel support to canvas.