In this table there are two miracles of Saint Nicholas; the saint appears twice: in the sky on the right helping the shipwrecked and, on the lower left, thanking a captain who has given him part of his cargo of grain.
Legend has it that the saint multiplies the grain in a miracle, thus saving the Inhabitants of the city of Mira starving to death.
Originally, the panel is flanked by two other large pieces that also tell the miracles of Saint Nicholas.
Each one measures 34 cm by 60 and they make up the front part of a predella, a rectangular lower end of an altarpiece.
The three main panels of the same measure more than one meter high and show, on a golden background, the Virgin Mary with Jesus and four saints in the traditional sculptural posture.
The altarpiece is disassembled in the 19th century; two panels are currently exhibited in the Vatican Pinacoteca in Rome and the other pieces in Perugia.
The altarpiece was commissioned in 1437 for the chapel of San Nicolás in the Dominican church.
A painter monk from Fiesole, near Florence, takes care of it.
Fra Angelico was born around 1400 and died in 1455.
His name was Guido di Pietro and, when he entered the convent of San Domenico, he adopted the name of Fra Giovanni, later Fra Angelico.
He paints the altarpiece in a troubled age, both politically and artistically. The merchant Cosimo de Medici has just seized the economic and political power of the city-republic of Florence and in 1436 the cathedral of Florence with its dome, symbol of a new trend, the Renaissance, was consecrated.
Endless legends surround the life of Saint Nicholas, the popular patron saint of merchants and sailors.
A monk from the Quattrocento, Fra Angelico, captures some of his miracles in scenes of such beauty that they seem to have come from Paradise.
When Fra Angelico paints the altarpiece, Saint Nicholas is one of the most popular non-Bible saints.
In the Golden Legend, a collection of legends from the 13th century, more than a dozen miracles and pious acts are attributed to him.
Only in Germany, the Netherlands and France there are more than 2000 monuments in his honor around the year 1500.
But, Saint Nicholas is never officially canonized and most likely never even existed. Rather, what happens is that a character is invented to give life to various miraculous stories; someone who materializes in the figure of Bishop Nicolás de Myra.
The Golden Legend tells that the bishop died in 343, exactly on December 6, the day of Saint Nicholas.
December 6 was already a date set prior to the spread of Christianity. In the Mediterranean, the winter storms begin at that time of year, navigation becomes more dangerous and the aid of overpowering forces. natural and marine acquires more importance.
The ancient people prayed to Poseidon and Neptune.
Saint Nicholas takes on the role of these pagan gods and becomes the patron of the sailors.
The importance of this cult is also linked to the geographical location of the city of Myra that rises in Turkey.
Ships leave the port of Myra for Alexandria. They do not follow the route that runs parallel to the coast, as was customary then, but instead sail directly south without the help of landmarks.
Therefore, it is understandable that sailors and captains identify the saint’s homeland as the port of departure for such a dangerous journey that they called Journey to the Abyss. The history of the salvation of the sailors is one of the oldest legends about Saint Nicholas, although nothing is said about the situation in which the ship is found, at least it is not indicated in the Golden Legend.
For the narrator the only important thing is that the saint is invoked, that he appears and holds the sails, ropes and other implements of the ship and, immediately afterwards, the sea is calm.
The painter reproduces the situation in more detail. The sailboat is propelled through the rough sea towards a rugged coastline, while a sea monster pokes its head out of the water.
The miracle of San Nicolás consists of blowing the wind from the coast and propelling the sail towards the stern, something practically impossible, since the round hanger where the sail is hung is attached to the front part of the mast and cannot rotate backwards.
However, the saint touches her with the staff and the impossible happens. The figure of Saint Nicholas first became popular in the Byzantine empire. When Islam made its way, Italian ships seized the remains of the saint from Myra and took them to Bari, where they have been resting since 1087.
The sailors spread his fame from the port of Bari to northern Europe and he became a patron of the Hanseatic League (Hansa), as well as of later New York City.
He is the only saint to survive the Reformation in Protestant areas.
At present, he only poses problems for Catholics, since he is never canonized, rendering his aura of holiness illegitimate.
The legend tells of the famine that the population suffers and that in the port of Myra ships with wheat were docked to transport it to other ports.
Saint Nicholas asks the sailors to save the starving population, giving them only 100 measures of wheat for each boat.
The sailors claim: Father, we dare not do it, because the grain has been measured in Alexandria and we must deliver it to the imperial granaries.
To which San Nicolas responds:
Do what I tell you and I swear by the power of God that you will not suffer any loss before the emperor’s meter.
And so it happens. Saint Nicholas also multiplies the amount of grain in the city that is enough to supply the inhabitants of Myra for two years and, in addition, there is seed left to sow.
The only historical data in the legend is the transportation of wheat from Alexandria to Constantinople, via Myra.
Cereals long served as taxes on spices, used for the supply of the imperial capital.
Fra Angelico, however, does not refer to Constantinople but to the capital of the Empire
Occidental and his own Church: In one of the pennants of the ships appears the inscription SPQR, the abbreviation of Senate and town of the Romans.
The container used to fill grain sacks was used for measuring and was one of the main instruments in the grain trade.
Saint Nicholas asked for 100 measurements per ship and the narrator points out that the grain was measured in Alexandria and that the meters were waiting in the imperial capital.
Measurement is very important, since there were different types of valid measurements in different places, which was often used to obtain substantial benefits.
The origin and great popularity of this legend are also closely linked to the reality of hunger, since the majority of the population passes it.
Cereals were the main food.
Although the cities stockpiled grain, two consecutive bad harvests are enough to empty the granaries.
On the other hand, the possibilities of transporting food quickly are slim. If successful, traders can achieve up to 400 percent profit.
Bread and cereals play an essential role in the legends of Saint Nicholas, indeed, at the beginning it was even attributed functions of the pagan gods of fertility.
One of its attributes was two loaves that were thrown over the side of the ship when the storm arose, in the hope that the waters would calm down.
In a time marked by the constant threat of hunger, the grain becomes a symbol of wealth and Saint Nicholas one of the saints who promote prosperity.
He is not only the patron of seafarers, but also of merchants, especially those of wheat, of transporters, gauges, millers, bakers, and brewers.
Protect against theft and loss, and give gold to poor girls so they can get married. Apparently, the medieval church, completely preoccupied with the afterlife and asceticism, needs a saint who does not despise material luck too much to attract his sheep.
This table not only pays tribute to the holy people, but also to navigation and commerce. Ships and merchandise take up a good part of the painting; sailors and merchants appear sailing under the threat of the storm.
On the other hand, the captain in front of the bishop is the same size as the saint: Saint Nicholas becomes the merchant’s heavenly companion.
This recognition of trade, especially overseas trade, is due to its great importance. It develops over the past centuries, among other places in the Hanseatic League, and transforms power relations in society.
Along with the feudal lords, the cities appear with their economic power and, in the city-republics like Florence, the bankers and merchants are the ones who monopolize all the power.
Cósimo de Medici became a political sovereign thanks to his banks and exchange houses, although he did not publicly demonstrate that power.
Like all Florentine merchants, he dressed in the simple red cloak and black cap, just like the man kneeling on the right in the group of those who are praying. However, Christian merchants had problems of conscience .
The Church long condemns any money business calling it usury and accusing it of the sin of greed.
It is punishable by excommunication and the most horrible sufferings in hell.
Still in the twelfth century it is said in the Canonical Code of Gratian: The merchant cannot please God or only with effort.
In the 13th century, Saint Thomas Aquinas tries to adapt the ecclesiastical ideology to the new situation: When you trade for the common good, when you want to prevent the lack of what is necessary, then the profit will not be considered as an objective in itself, but only as a reward that the work requires.
The absolution refers to the goods necessary to live, that is, it has only a relative validity. Profit-seeking traders remain under suspicion of greed.
To escape the punishments of hell (and surely also out of a sense of social responsibility), merchants did charity work.
To put it in some way, Italian commercial companies grant God a checking account and it is not always a simple formula when their books and contracts begin with the following words:
In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Most of the alms go to the Church or to those in need through religious charities.
Cosimo de Medici pays for the construction of churches, chapels and convents, also hosting Pope Eugene IV for years, who has enemies in Rome.
In 1436 he obtained permission from him to restore a ruined building in Florence and give it to the Dominicans of Fiesole as a convent.
Among them is Fra Angelico who is commissioned to paint the convent. Its frescoes of San Marcos are still considered today as one of the greatest artistic monuments in the city.
A mountain range separates the settings of both legends, but the sea and the sky unite them again so that, for the viewer, the two miracles occur at the same time.
In the Middle Ages it is customary to represent several events on the same table. The Church conveys a feeling of eternity and, from the perspective of eternity (sub specie aeternitatis), place and time are irrelevant.
However, in the 15th century, the world and earthly time were also acquiring interest in art, since the churches are no longer the only ones to distribute the orders, but more and more bankers and merchants decide.
Their work forced them to think about interest payment days and transportation routes, geography and time configure their calculation bases.
The sense of reality and the present is reinforced by the rediscovery of ancient authors. Thus arises what today we call Renaissance Although a painter like Fra Angelico works for the Church and the convent, his work is financed for many years by Cosimo de Medici, the most powerful merchant in Florence.
Fra Angelico also paints those cells in the convent of San Marcos where Cosimo de Medici wants to retire to meditate and, according to his enemies, do penance for his greed.
The painter’s living conditions are also reflected in his works. The saint standing on a gold background, on the main panel of the altarpiece, remains deeply rooted in medieval tradition; while in the tables of legends, the pious vision competes with the new attempts to capture the earthly reality and reproduce the space through perspective.
He tries to penetrate the spatial dimension through the mountain range that rises towards the bottom, although he only resorts to the laws of perspective on rare occasions.
What can be seen in the bowsprit of the central ship, which seems to rise vertically instead of protruding inclined towards the front, or in the left sailboat whose stern and forecastle have been represented from different points of view.
Regarding light, an essential element in spatial representation, it can be seen that the mountains are illuminated from the bottom left, while the characters in the foreground receive a dim light that comes from the front to the left.
The figures are reproduced in great detail, but the mountains and houses have been Simplified.
The amazing thing about the table is that these antagonisms do not bother at all.
The painting offers a dreamlike image, like the representation of something supernatural on earth.
The artist biographer, Vasari, wrote in the 16th century about Fra Angelico’s figures that are so beautiful that they seem to have come out of Paradise.
Los secretos de las obras de arte: Rose-Marie & Rainer Hagen. Tomo I – Taschen GmbH, 2003. Printed in Spain.