Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Divine birth: The birth of Santa Claus

Birth of Saint Nicolas of Bari, ca. 1430

Pietro di Giovanni d’ AmbrogioTempera and gold on panel Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland

San Nicola, or Saint Nicolas of Bari, is the Patron Saint of Bari, Italy. Born during the third century in what is now Turkey, he came from a wealthy family and used his money to help the poor and the sick. As Bishop of Myra, also in Turkey, he was briefly jailed by the Romans but later released. He died on December 6, 343 CE. As he was very generous and loved children, he is believed to be the true Santa Claus.

In 1087 his remains and relics are said to have been taken from Myra to Bari, where a huge basilica was erected in his honor. His bones are said to exude myrrh, which is collected from the tomb once a year, diluted with holy water, and distributed to pilgrims to bring bodily and spiritual healing.The painting by Pietro di Giovanni d’Ambrogio has been dated 1444, but may have been painted even earlier and was mistakenly identified as representing the birth of the Virgin. It shows the newborn Nicolas suddenly standing up in his bath and raising his hands to heaven—while his mother and nurse look on in surprise. Even as a baby he was so devout that he did penance, taking milk from his mother’s breast only twice a week. Pietro di Giovanni d’Ambrogio (1410-1449) was a Sienese painter described as an artist of remarkable inventiveness and narrative genius. The details of his life are not well known, and only the last ten years of his brief career are documented.

George Dunea, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Highlighted in Frontispiece Fall 2012 – Volume 4, Issue 4

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