Saints of Italy – Nicholas

detail of a stained glass window of Saint Nicholas of Bari; by James Powell and Sons, 1904; chapel of Saint Nicholas, cathedral of Saint David, Wales; photographed on 21 July 2011 by Wolfgang Sauber; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsThe Good Bishop
There was once a noble and wealthy couple, to whom, after many years, a son was born. They gave him the name of Niccolo. When he was but an hour old, the nurse began to wash him in the bath, and, to her exceeding wonder, the helpless babe knelt up of himself in the water, and, lifting his little hands, gave praise to God. She marvelled yet more when on Friday, the day whereon our dear Lord suffered His Passion, the infant refused to eat more than once, weeping and turning away his head in disgust when she would have had him take food a second time. These things being told to his parents, they were greatly astonished. And they called to mind how it is written, ” Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings Thou hast perfected praise.” As he increased in years he showed forth many other signs of God’s grace, and grew up a thoughtful and devout youth. He was goodly of countenance, and had long golden hair; his speech also was very pleasant, so that men were wont to stop him in the public ways, that they might look on him and hear him speak. His heart was full of loving-kindness; he grieved over the sick and sorrowful, and would not rest till he had done all he might to ease their distress. Now, there was in the city a certain merchant who had lately lost all his goods in an unlucky venture on the seas, and was brought to great poverty. He had three fair daughters, and was sorely troubled on their account, for without giving them marriage portions he could not get them husbands, and he had no longer any bread wherewith to feed them. One afternoon the damsels, being very hungry, came to him and said, “Father, suffer us to go into the street and beg bread, else we must all perish of hunger.” But he, being ashamed, forbade them, and commanded them to go to bed, that sleeping they might forget the pains of emptiness. He himself sat down on a stool, and leant his head upon his hand, pondering with a heavy heart. Now, his sad plight had been told to Niccolo, and that very night the kind youth came beneath the window of the house, bearing under his cloak a lump of gold; and he lifted himself up upon tiptoe, and threw the gold softly in through the bars, so that it fell at the merchant’s feet, and then he ran off as fast as he might. The merchant was astonished and overjoyed at this unexpected gift, and, picking it up, went forth in haste to buy victuals for his household. He bestowed the remainder of the gold upon his eldest daughter, and shortly after married her, amid great rejoicings, to a good man of his acquaintance. Then Niccolo came again and threw in a second lump, and yet a third time he did likewise. Now, the merchant was resolved to discover who he might be who came in such a hidden manner, so he lay in wait in a dark place outside the house, and the third time, as Niccolo was departing, he ran after him, and, seizing the good youth by the cloak, compelled him to reveal himself. Then, falling down on the ground, the happy father desired to kiss the feet of the young man; but Niccolo prevented him, and, raising him up, adjured him that he should tell no man this thing. And the merchant returned to his home, and there being now portions for the two younger maidens, he sought earnestly among his acquaintance for husbands for them; and very soon each in her turn was married to a worthy man, and lived happily ever afterwards.

Now, it came to pass that the bishop of that city died, and the prelates and priests throughout all the country assembled together to appoint a new shepherd for the flock. And there was a certain bishop among them who was exceedingly holy, and all men supposed that the choice should have fallen on him. But this good man heard a voice which spoke to him in the night, and bade him place himself next morning before dawn at the door of the church, and take him who should be the first person to come there, and consecrate him as bishop. It happened by the secret operation of the Lord that Niccolo rose very early that morning, before any other of the city, and went, according to his wont, to the church. As he was about to cross the threshold, the bishop took hold of him and asked, saying, “What is thy name?” Niccolo, full of the innocence of the dove, bowed his head and answered, ” Thy servant’s name is Niccolo.” Then the good man summoned all the others, and they led Niccolo into the church, telling him that he was chosen to be the bishop. The young man, greatly astonished, declared himself to be utterly unworthy, but they refused to listen to him, and compelled him to seat himself upon the episcopal throne. Being now bishop, he continued to walk in all virtue and humility, bearing himself with equal kindness towards every man, whether great or small; he reproved the guilty, and taught wisdom to all who came to him. And he began also to do many signs and wonders, so that the fame of him was spread far and wide.

It happened one day that a certain ship was exceedingly tossed by a tempest, and the sailors, fearing they must have perished, cried out, saying, ” Niccolo, servant of God, if these things be true which men tell of thee, haste now to help us.” Straightway a man, wearing the garments of a bishop, appeared in their midst and said, ” Ye called, and behold, I am come.” And he instructed them how to manage the ship in the storm, and very soon a great calm arose, and he was seen of them no more. And being come safe to land, the sailors went up into the city, and entered into the church. Then when they saw Niccolo, those among them who had never been there before knew immediately that this was he who had succoured them in their distress, and they all knelt down and gave thanks to God for their deliverance.

Now, when Niccolo had been a short while bishop, there came to him certain persons from a country not far off, complaining to him that, being Christians, they were cruelly persecuted by the rest of the inhabitants, who were still held fast in the bonds of heathenism, worshippers of the false goddess Diana. The good bishop immediately rose up and went himself to the place, where he sought out the sanctuary of the goddess, destroyed her image and temple, and converted the people to the faith by his wise and kindly words. And after he had abode there a few days he returned to his own city. Now, because of this thing, the Evil One was sorely vexed against him, and made a kind of oil so potent that the flame of it was able to consume stones, and could not be quenched by water. Then, taking the form of a pious old woman, the devil entered into a ship wherein were certain pilgrims, who were on their way to visit Niccolo, and said to them, “I would that I also might go up with you to see the holy man, but I am not able; wherefore, I pray you to take this oil and anoint with it the walls of his dwelling in remembrance of me.” The pilgrims consented, and took the oil. And when they were come soon after to another port, they met one like unto the good Niccolo, but they knew not who it was, and he asked them, saying, “What did the woman say, and what did she give to you? ” And they, astonished at the question, answered and told him; and he said, “Lo, this is the wicked Diana, and that ye may know that I speak true, take the oil and throw it on the water.” They did so, whereupon a great fire burst up upon the sea, and burnt with great fury, contrary to the laws of nature. The pilgrims marvelled greatly, and, continuing on their way, came at last to the city, and were brought into the presence of the bishop. And when they saw him they fell down and said, ” Now we know that it was thou who spakest to us at the port, and delivered us from the snares of that devil.” And they gave glory and thanks to God.

And after Niccolo had ruled his flock for many years with the utmost wisdom and loving-kindness, and was grown old and infirm, the Lord at length called to Himself His faithful servant. Niccolo, knowing his hour was come, prayed that angels might be sent unto him, and presently a multitude, all in white, with wreaths of roses on their heads, alighted round his couch, and folded their radiant wings. Then he bowed his head, comforted, and began to sing, saying, “Lord, in Thee is my hope,” and after a little while he said, “Lord, into Thy hands I commend my spirit,” and, falling back, he sighed and passed away.

Then pious men took his body and laid it in a sepulchre of marble, and built over it a beautiful altar. And multitudes came to visit the sepulchre, and many wonders were done there. Now, it came to pass, many years after, that a certain man borrowed a large sum of money from a Jew, and took an oath upon the altar of San Niccolo that he would pay it as soon as he was able. But a long time passed, and the man did not restore the money, and when the Jew asked for it he confidently affirmed that he had already paid it. Then the Jew called the debtor before the judge, who commanded him to swear solemnly that he had paid the money. Thereupon the crafty man took a hollow stick and put the money inside it, and leaned upon it as if it had been a staff; then being summoned to swear, he asked the Jew to hold the stick, and having in this manner given him the money, he went and took an oath that he had paid what he owed, and afterwards demanded the staff again of the Jew, who gave it back to him. Then that fraudulent fellow went out, and being overcome by slumber, lay down at the cross-roads and slept, and presently a waggon passed over his body and killed him, and, breaking the stick, scattered the gold over the ground. The Jew, hearing this, ran to the place, and immediately saw how he had been deceived. The people who had assembled there would have had him take up his gold; but the Jew, being a good man, said, “Not so; I will not take it, except the dead be restored to life by the intercession of the holy Niccolo, and then will I myself become a Christian,” And immediately, to the astonishment of all, the dead man opened his eyes, and rose up alive and well. Falling at the feet of the Jew, he implored forgiveness with much weeping; and the Jew raised him up and pardoned him. Then they went together to the altar of San Niccolo, and gave thanks to God; and shortly afterwards the Jew received Baptism.

And there was another Jew, who, observing the miracles which were done by the saint, made an image of him and set it in a chamber of his own house. When he had occasion to go forth he would say to the image, ” Niccolo, I commit all my goods to thy care; guard them well, for if I find aught missing when I return, I will lay vengeance on thee, and beat thee soundly.” One day, whilst he was absent, some robbers came and carried away everything out of the house save the image only. When the Jew returned, and saw himself thus despoiled of his goods, he cried out in great anger to the image, “Holy Niccolo, I put thee in my house to preserve me from robbers. Wherefore hast thou not kept better watch? ” And he took it and smote it cruelly, and cast it away all battered and broken. Then a strange thing came to pass. The robbers, having hidden in a deep cave, known only to themselves, were that same night engaged in counting their stolen treasures by the light of a wood fire, when suddenly a man stood in their midst, covered with bruises and bloody gashes. They looked on him amazed, and he spoke, saying, “Wherefore should I suffer such sore beatings and pains because of your sins? Behold how my body is torn; behold my blood flowing! Now go and restore all, else shall your crimes be discovered, and ye shall be delivered to the tormentors, and be hanged upon the gallows.” They said, “Who art thou that speakest to us in this manner?” He answered, “I am Niccolo, the servant of the Lord; and now hath the Jew beaten me because you stole his goods.” He vanished, and the robbers, wondering and greatly afraid, went straightway to the Jew’s house, where they beheld the broken image, and understood the words of Niccolo. Then they gave back everything to the Jew, who was beyond measure astonished and joyful, so that he soon afterwards received Baptism. And the robbers went to the church to implore pardon of God for their sins, and from that time forth they forsook their evil courses, and lived honestly in the sight of all men.

A certain man had a son whom he loved dearly. He was accustomed to celebrate every year with great solemnity the feast of San Niccolo, the day being also the birthday of the child. Now, when the boy reached his seventh year, the father prepared a sumptuous banquet, according to his wont, and bade many guests to the feast. In the midst of the laughter and revelry a knock was heard at the door, and a pilgrim presented himself, asking for alms. The host bade his little son carry some bread and wine to the stranger. The child, being curious, like all of his age, watched the man as he sat and eat upon a bench in the courtyard, and presently, looking down, said to him, “Thou hast strange feet, Master Pilgrim, for when I saw them but now I thought they were the hoofs of some animal. I prithee of thy kindness show them to me again.” The pilgrim said, ” If thou wilt go with me to the fountain at the cross-ways yonder, fair babe, I will wash my feet before thine eyes, and then will I also remove my hood and show thee the pretty ornaments which I wear on my forehead.” The child agreed gladly, and put out his little hand, but the stranger kept his own hidden in his bosom, so the child laid hold of his cloak, and they went together to the fountain. After a short space the father looked round, and not seeing his son, sent servants to seek for him, but he might nowhere be found. Then a neighbour came running breathless into the hall, and cried, saying, “Thy child lieth dead in the fountain at the cross-ways, for, being on a housetop a little way off, I saw one like unto a pilgrim come thither with the boy, and when he cast off his mantle he was a horrible demon, with cloven hoofs and hands like a vulture’s claws, and on his forehead there were two hideous horns. He took the innocent babe, and strangled him, and threw him into the water.” The father, tearing his hair with grief, caused the boy’s body to be fetched and laid in an upper chamber, and he knelt down beside it, and wringing his hands, cried out, “San Niccolo, San Niccolo, dost thou reward me thus for all the honour I have done thee?” And as he spoke the child stirred on the bed, and presently opened his eyes, as if he were waking out of a sweet sleep. The father seized him in his arms, and saw that he was indeed alive and well. Then was there great joy and thanksgiving throughout the house. They questioned the boy of what had happened to him, and he remembered nothing, but thought that he had been on a long journey in a pleasant land, and that a venerable man with a bishop’s mitre on his head had led him back to his father’s house. So they knew that the Lord had sent San Niccolo to deliver him from the Evil One.

Another man, who had no children, and greatly desired a son, earnestly besought the saint to pray for him to the Lord, vowing to offer up a gold cup upon the altar if a child was granted to him. Soon after his wife bore a son, and when the boy was come to the age of six years the father caused a gold cup to be made in accordance with his vow. The vessel being finished, he was so pleased with the beauty thereof that he kept it for himself, and thought to redeem his vow to the saint with one of silver instead. Now, as he and his household were crossing the sea to come to the city of San Niccolo, the father bade the child fetch him some water in the gold cup, and as the boy leant over the side of the ship to get water, he fell in with the cup, and was swallowed up by the waves. The father continued on his way, sorrowing very grievously, and being come to the shore, he went to the Church of San Niccolo and offered up the silver cup upon the altar. But the cup fell back on to the ground with such violence that it was as if it had been flung down. A second time the man set it on the altar, and it was hurled yet further away; and again a third time, when it seemed to rebound like a ball, and fell at the other side of the church. Then all there began to ask one another what this thing might mean, and they perceived clearly that the saint rejected the gift. Whilst they stood there wondering, the lost boy suddenly appeared in their midst, bearing in his hands the gold cup. He related to them how San Niccolo had come down out of the sky, and snatched him up from the deep waters and borne him in his own arms, where the boy had fallen into a deep slumber, and, awaking, found himself where he now was. Then the father rejoiced greatly, and embraced his child with tears of thanksgiving. Convinced of his guilt in keeping the more precious vessel for himself, he knelt down in deep humility before the altar, and, taking both the gold cup and the silver one, he offered them up together to the saint.

They tell, also, how a certain nobleman’s son fell into the hands of the heathen, and was given up to the Sultan, who appointed him to serve at the royal table. One day, as he knelt beside the monarch and offered the wine-cup, he called to remembrance that it was the day of the Feast of San Niccolo, whereon it was the custom to hold high festival in his father’s house. Overcome by his thoughts of home, he sighed deeply, and tears came into his eyes, whereupon the Sultan asked him why he was sad, and when the child told him, that cruel man said jestingly, ” Let thy San Niccolo do what he is able for thee, thou shalt yet remain here as my slave.” Immediately a great wind arose and rushed through all the halls of the palace, shaking it to its very foundations; and the boy was seized away before the astonished eyes of the monarch, and borne swiftly through the air, over mountains and seas, to the house of his father, where he was welcomed with the utmost wonder and joy.

These, and many other marvels, were wrought by the good San Niccolo, and in especial he succoured children, as you have seen, for he loved them and compassionated their distresses more than all others. For this cause boys and young maids throughout the world paid him much reverence. It is said that in certain countries of the north, to this very day, the little ones hang their stockings by their bedsides on the night of Christmas Eve, and when all eyes are fast closed in sleep, the kind saint comes silently in and fills each stocking with everything that the heart of its owner most desires; but those of naughty children he heaps up with rubbish, rags, and old bones, and such like. If this be true, I know not, but I counsel you all to see for yourselves when next the joyful feast of Yule comes round.

The Famine

It happened in a certain year that the country where the good San Niccolo was bishop was visited by a grievous famine, and all the grain in the city having been consumed, so that no bread was to be had anywhere, the people began to be in sore straits. Niccolo, grieving for their distress, distributed all his own stores among them, and when there was nothing more left he became sadly perplexed, for he knew not how to relieve their sufferings. He prayed continually to God for succour. One day it was told him that three ships, laden with grain for Constantinople, were come into the port of the city. He rose, and went down to the harbour, and commanded the captains of the ships to unlade and deliver to him a certain measure of wheat, sufficient to feed his people. But they refused, saying, ” We dare not do it, for the grain was measured at Alexandria, and must be rendered up in full to the Emperor.” Then said Niccolo, ” Fear not, for of a surety the Lord will replenish your sacks.” And after a little the excellence of his speech prevailed with them, so that they did as he required. And continuing their journey, they came at length to Constantinople, and when they unladed the ship they were rejoiced to find the number of the sacks of corn complete as when they had set out from Alexandria, and in each sack the full measure of grain. Now, this was the Lord’s doing. And of the grain they had given to the good bishop, he distributed abundantly to all of the city, and there remained over and above enough wherewith to sow the ground for another year.

Having thus happily delivered the city from its trouble, Niccolo set forth on a journey into the country round about, wishing to see how the people fared. And there was everywhere great scarcity, and men in their hunger were become cruel, each one snatching what he might for himself, heedless of his neighbour’s want, so that Niccolo found much occasion to reprove them. When he was come to a certain village, a poor woman, who was a widow, met him and fell at his feet, weeping bitterly, and implored him to give her back her three young sons, who had disappeared, and she did not know where to find them. Niccolo said, “How may I restore to thee thy sons, good woman? Without doubt they have wandered into some forest in search of food, and are fallen dead of hunger.” But she cried, saying, “Nay, for I had victual enough, and my children were not an hungered, but were fat and well liking.” The good bishop comforted her and continued on his way to the inn, where he entered in and commanded the host to serve him with supper, expecting that a little bread and water at the most should have been brought. But the innkeeper set before him a dish of roasted meat. “What is this, fellow?” said Niccolo. “How comest thou by this meat, seeing the dearth is so sore in the land?” The innkeeper, bowing low before him, answered, “It was told me that the holy bishop was about to enter into my house, whereupon I took the kid that remained to me alone of all my flocks and killed it that I might have meat for thy refreshment.” But Niccolo perceived by the countenance of the man that he lied, and said, ” Bring me to thy larder.” The innkeeper began to shake in all his limbs, yet not daring to refuse, he went before the holy man with the candle in his hand, and led him into the courtyard. Here were set three tubs, full of salted meat. “What do I see?” cried Niccolo. “Thou wicked one, and murderer of helpless babes. This is not the flesh of kids, but of children.” And he prayed to the Lord with a loud voice to deliver the innocent, and immediately the pieces of meat began to stir in the tubs and join themselves together and became three little live boys, who sprang up before the eyes of all who stood there. They knelt down before the bishop; then seeing the innkeeper standing there, they began to weep and be sore afraid; but Niccolo comforted them, and bade them tell everything that had befallen them. Then they related how the man had met them in a wood and had cunningly persuaded them to go with him to his house, and had there bound and killed them, and made them into meat for the strangers which should come to the inn. Then the wicked fellow was terrified beyond measure, and fell at Niccolo’s feet, imploring mercy; but the good bishop answered sternly, and sending for the soldiers, delivered him up to be carried before the magistrates and punished as his iniquities deserved. The three children were restored to the woman, who rejoiced over them with so great tenderness that the beholders were moved to tears, and joined with one heart and mind in glorifying God, “Who causeth the widow’s heart to sing for joy.”

The Three Princes

It came to pass that the people of the country round about that city, wherein San Niccolo dwelt, rebelled against the Emperor, who sent forth three great princes, with a large host, to subdue them. Now, the heart of Niccolo was sorrowful because of the rebels, for they were poor and ignorant folk, and he feared their chastisement would be heavy. Seeing far off, from his window, the three captains pricking across the plain on their chargers, at the head of a great procession of horsemen and foot-soldiers, with banners floating and trumpets sounding, he sent messengers to bid them to come and eat meat in his house, for he hoped to persuade them to deal mercifully with their enemy. The princes consented gladly, having heard men speak of the wonders which were done by the good bishop, and desiring greatly to see him. And they ascended to the city, and entered into his house. It happened that the judge of the city, a harsh and unjust man, had secretly condemned three innocent young noblemen to be beheaded that very evening, pretending that they were traitors, in league with the rebels. Now, as Niccolo was sitting at meat with the princes, there came one running, with dishevelled hair and marks of frantic haste, and falling down before the good bishop, told him of the execution, which was even then taking place, and implored him to come and deliver the innocent. Niccolo, filled with righteous indignation, rose up without delay, and praying his guests to go with him, hastened to the market-place. There, in the midst of a multitude of people, who had run together to witness the woeful spectacle, they beheld the three victims, kneeling down, with their eyes bound and hands tied behind their backs, and the executioner, a horrid, squint-eyed fellow, in the very act of lifting his axe to smite the neck of the eldest. Niccolo, crying loudly, “Hold!” fell upon the executioner, and snatching the weapon from his hand, threw it far away over the heads of the bystanders. Then he tenderly loosed the captives each in turn, and led them away unhurt, amid the joyful applause of the multitude, whilst the soldiers, who had been sent to guard against the escape of the prisoners, looked on astounded, and dared not hinder him. Afterward Niccolo went to the palace of the judge and rebuked him with great severity in the presence of the princes. The miserable man, filled with shame, knew not how to excuse himself, and at length fell on his knees, and shedding abundant tears of repentance, besought pardon for his sin, which the saint deigned to grant. Now, all these things were observed with no small wonder by the princes, and they kept them in their hearts. Having taken leave of the good bishop, they went forth with their army, and reduced the rebellious people to submission without shedding blood, and afterwards returned to the Emperor, who gave them much praise and honour.

When a long time had passed, these three princes fell into disgrace, being falsely accused of high treason by some wicked men, who coveted their possessions. The Emperor, in a great rage, caused them to be thrown into a dreadful dungeon, and commanded that they should be put to death in the night. The captives learned their condemnation from the gaoler, and became very sorrowful, not knowing how they might be saved. At length they called to remembrance Niccolo, and how they had seen him deliver the innocent men, and they knelt down and invoked the succour of the good bishop. In that same hour of the night, when all was dark and silent in the great palace, a man stood beside the Emperor in a vision, and said to him, “Wherefore art thou provoked to anger against the princes, and hast condemned them to death, who have done no evil against thee? Arise, and command that they be set free, else shalt thou perish beneath the sword of thine enemies and be eaten of wild beasts.” The Emperor asked, saying, ” Who art thou, that darest to enter in here in the night and speak so boldly to me? ” The saint answered, ” I am the Bishop Niccolo.” Then the Emperor awoke, and, calling his guards, sent for the prisoners; and when they were come he asked them, saying, ” What magic do you use, that you have caused me to dream so strange a dream?” They answered that they were not magicians, and were innocent of all offence against him. Then he said, “Know you a man called Niccolo?” When they heard this name, they raised their hands to heaven and prayed aloud to the Lord to succour them by the help of the saint. Then the Emperor bade them tell him all things concerning Niccolo, and, having listened attentively, said, ” Behold, I set you free. Go in peace, and give thanks to God, who hath given you your lives in answer to the prayers of His servant.”

– from Saints of Italy, by Ella Noyes; J M Dent and Sons, London, 1901