Bicci di Lorenzo, St Nicholas of Bari Rebuking the Storm

Gallery 39, first floor, Italian Renaissance


Focus on the Object

St Nicholas

This charming work shows a posthumous miracle from the Life of Saint Nicholas when he helped save some sailors caught in a tempest. St Nicholas is usually shown as a bishop holding three gold balls, representing the dowries he left for the three daughters of an impoverished man while the household was asleep. From this secret gift comes the tradition of Father Christmas and the pawnbrokers’ sign.


The work can be seen as dividing into two halves - the right hand side, where the darkness of the storm predominates, and the left, where there is sunlight and calm. On the right the blackness of the sky merges with the deep, menacing green of the sea and the horizon is hard to discern. There is a torn sail flapping and straining in the wind and the terrified crew are throwing their belongings overboard in an attempt to lighten the weight of the vessel. Some of them point into the deep at just-visible, large, fantastical fish with sharp teeth. On the left there is light, and both land and the horizon are comfortingly visible. The praying crew member has been rewarded with the arrival of St Nicholas, in a blaze of stars, and with the calming of the storm. You can even see a mermaid, a pagan inhabitant of the deep, being cast out as a result of the saint’s arrival.

The design also features a definite circular sweep which indicates the narrative of the story. You can follow the sail’s circular form from where it joins the mast at the top to around the side of the boat, where it ends in a thin line. This thin line in turn points to the praying figure and hence to St Nicholas - the resolution of the troubles. A second circular motion begins with St Nicholas, moves down to the praying man, round to the dinghy and then onto the mermaid, who is being forced out of the picture: thus moving from St Nicholas’s original action to the effect of that action.