MS H.8, fols. 182v–183r

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St. Nicholas: NIcholas Giving Gold to the Three Maidens

Hours of Henry VIII
Illuminated by Jean Poyer

France, Tours
ca. 1500
256 x 180 mm

Gift of the Heineman Foundation, 1977

MS H.8, fols. 182v–183r

St. Nicholas: NIcholas Giving Gold to the Three Maidens
Border: Nicholas Resuscitating the Three Boys (fol. 182v)

Nicholas (of Myra or Bari), one of the most universally venerated saints, is said to have been born about 270 and died in 342. A precociously religious child of wealthy parents, Nicholas supposedly stood up and praised God the moment he was born. When he inherited his father's fortune, he gave it away to the poor.

In the miniature the saint appears at a double window holding a bag of gold near a bed, while the girls' despondent father slumps in a chair. (The three gold balls became the insignia for the pawnbroker.)

St. Nicholas's most celebrated act of generosity occurred upon hearing an impoverished neighbor lament that he could not supply dowries for his three daughters, leaving them no alternative but a life of prostitution. On three successive nights Nicholas threw a bag of gold (or a gold ball) through their window.

The saint's second famous miracle involves an unscrupulous innkeeper who, during a food shortage, dismembered and pickled three young boys to feed his guests. Sensing foul play, Nicholas made the Sign of the Cross over the tub, and the three stood up, restored to life.

In the grisaille border the three boys, now restored to life, kneel in gratitude before the blessing saint. This legend may have developed from the three purses or gold balls normally shown with the saint, which were mistaken for the towheads of children.

As Nicholas's feast falls during the Christmas season, he was confused with a folklore character who rewarded good children with gifts brought secretly during the night. The two eventually merged to become Father Christmas, or Santa Claus (Feast day: December 6)