Under cover of darkness, Saint Nicholas throws three golden balls through the window of the house of an impoverished nobleman. The saint’s act of charity, providing dowries for the daughters so they could marry, saved them from being sold into prostitution. Saint Nicholas’s feast day is celebrated on 5 December and the story gradually evolved into the Christmas tradition of Santa Claus.
The shape and sturdy structure of the panel suggest that the picture may have been set into a piece of furniture or incorporated into the panelled walls of a bedchamber. Such decorative schemes were often commissioned at the time of a marriage. As well as the scene of sleeping, the moral of this tale was also appropriate to a bedchamber – by the saint’s charity, the noble lineage of the family was protected.
Under cover of darkness, Saint Nicholas throws three golden balls through the window of the house of an impoverished nobleman. The nobleman and his three adult daughters are all sleeping, although none of them are in bed. The softly gleaming moonlight contrasts with the artificial lamplight of the interior which highlights the shimmer on the daughters‘ gowns.
The Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century compilation of the lives of saints, tells how the fourth-century Saint Nicholas gave three purses of gold to the family to provide the daughters with dowries so they could get married. It was the custom, as it still is in many communities around the world, for the bride’s family to give money to the groom’s family when the marriage was arranged. Golden balls were often used by artists to represent the purses of the gold mentioned in the saint’s legend.
According to the story, the nobleman had been faced with the prospect of selling his girls into prostitution, as he had no money to look after them himself or to arrange marriages for them. The saint’s act of charity saved them from this fate. The resurrected Christ with a chalice and the crucified Christ are included in the decorations of the room to emphasise that charity is a Christian virtue, as well as the fact that the family are worthy recipients as they are good Christians. Saint Nicholas’s feast day is celebrated on 5 December, and the story gradually evolved into the Christmas tradition of Santa Claus.
The removal of Saint Nicholas’s relics from Myra in Asia Minor to Bari in Italy in the 11th century explains his popularity in Renaissance Italy. This scene depicting his charity was often found in cycles devoted to his life, either frescoed on the walls of chapels or included in the predella scenes of altarpieces. Here the episode is treated as an independent subject on a larger scale, which is perhaps unprecedented. The shape and sturdy structure of the panel suggest that the picture may have been a spalliera, a decorative painting set into a piece of furniture or incorporated into the panelled walls of a camera, a room that functioned as a bedchamber and reception room. Such decorative schemes were often commissioned at the time of a marriage, as for example the decorations for the Borgherini Bedchamber.
The subject matter here is well suited to such a purpose, since the picture both includes a bedchamber (rather better furnished in contemporary Florentine Mannerist taste than the nobleman’s impoverished circumstances might suggest) and evokes the theme of sleep, in an inventive variety of poses. The moral of the tale was also appropriate – by the saint’s charity, the girls were able to marry and the noble lineage of the family was protected. The sewing basket beside them alludes to the girls’ domestic skills and suitability as wives.
Although in the past the painting has been attributed to several Florentine Mannerist painters, the smooth sculptural quality of the figures, gracefully elongated through their draperies, and the cangiante colours of their costumes (of two colours like shot silk), appear closest to Girolamo Macchietti’s youthful works, probably following his return to Florence from Rome in 1563. It is possible that the sophisticated light effects and many of the motifs are influenced by the Roman works of Parmigianino and Raphael, culled mainly from engravings. Macchietti’s picture probably influenced a signed painting by Stradanus of the same subject, dated 1585 (Casa Vasari, Arezzo).
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