The Virgin Mary sits between two male saints, the naked Christ Child on her knee. The young man holding a book is probably Saint John the Evangelist, author of one of the four Gospels: he was conventionally shown as fair haired and beardless. The old man with the white beard and bishop’s crosier is Saint Nicholas of Bari, a fourth-century bishop and the original Father Christmas. Christ grasps one of three gold balls, Nicholas’s traditional emblem which he holds in his hand.
Pictures like this, showing the Virgin and Child with saints, are known as sacra conversazione (‘holy conversation’) and were very widespread in north Italian painting. Although it has been damaged and retouched, the picture might be an original by Cima da Conegliano, probably painted towards the end of his life.
According to the Golden Legend, Nicholas was born into a wealthy family in Patras but wished to give away his inheritance for the glory of God. His neighbour had three daughters, but was so poor that he could not afford a proper dowry for them – meaning they would be unable to marry and might well be forced into prostitution. Nicholas secretly threw three bags of gold through the windows of their house, providing a dowry for them. The story of Nicholas’s gift giving was hugely popular in European art, where the bags of gold were represented as gold balls, as in The Charity of St Nicholas of Bari. Saint Nicholas evolved into Santa Claus via the Dutch Sinterklass and the tradition of giving gifts to children on 6 December, the saint’s feast day.
Although it has been damaged and retouched, the picture might be an original by Cima da Conegliano, probably painted towards the end of his life. Pictures like this, showing the Virgin and Child with saints, are known as sacra conversazione (‘holy conversation’) and were very widespread in north Italian painting. This design – with the three-quarter-length figures, and with Christ leaning outwards to grasp an object held by one of the saints – reappears in several other works by Cima and his workshop from around 1513–18, including The Virgin and Child with Saint Paul and Saint Francis.
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