That's My Jesus! by Chris Hall

"Buddy Christ" from the movie  Dogma  (1999).

"Buddy Christ" from the movie Dogma (1999).

“Art is the pure realization of religious feeling, capacity for faith, longing for God. […] The ability to believe is our outstanding quality, and only art adequately translates it into reality. But when we assuage our need for faith with an ideology we court disaster.” Gerhard Richter.

Today I am going to take a little side trip, away from Art, to write about religion and spirituality.  After 166 postings in this blog I have not once deviated from the subject of Art, so I think I can be forgiven in this one instance.

As explained in my previous post, I consider myself more spiritual than religious.  I don't get much out of one size fits all organized religious institutions.  The answers to my questions can not be found before a pulpit one hour on a Sunday morning.  Too much blood has been shed in the name of organized religion.  I can accept a certain amount of hypocrisy within myself and my life, but too often organized religion has too much hypocrisy even for me.  Instead I have long been in the process of developing my own spiritual path.  My self-created religion draws from a variety of sources: nature, art, literature, poetry, music, philosophy, and a variety of religious and mystical traditions.  Those traditions include Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, Shamanism, Alchemy, Gnosticism, and yes . . . Christianity.

Christianity is where I started, my religious mother's milk.  It is the skeletal structure with which I base all my moral and spiritual beliefs.  I believe Christian is not something you are, rather it is something one should aspire to become.  You may ask yourself, how can a lefty weirdo pervert such as myself, reconcile their proclivities with Christian doctrine?  It is easy for me, actually. Jesus welcomed outsiders into his party; he rolled with a band of misfits back in the day. Jesus was not exactly, how should I say it, bourgeois?  Jesus was also a man of flesh, a human being with feelings and emotions.  Many would have Jesus be an unapproachable holy marble man, or a neutered Ken doll.  But Jesus was human.  He had his doubts and fears, he experienced pain, and he was even susceptible to anger.  Wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that he also had a libido?  Even Jesus had a penis.  And what about his politics?  Jesus stayed out of politics.  Perhaps he would be the first to champion the separation of Church and State.  Jesus did not want to overthrow Rome; his message of compassion and forgiveness transcended the politics of his time.  Nevertheless, politics can learn from Jesus' example.  Reading The Bible, you might be surprised to learn that Jesus was the first Communist.  This is irrefutable.  Jesus, his disciples, and the first Christians all pooled their wealth together (Judas was the treasurer) and redistributed it equally and as needed.  No one went hungry in the first Christian Church.

When I read The Bible from beginning to end a few years ago, I was a little shocked by all that was left out in Sunday School.  It is full of fucked up angry God injustices (particularly in the Old Testament, where genocide, rape, slavery, human sacrifice, and the murder of children is both commanded and condoned), but if you have a dark sense of humor, you can get through the sanctioned violence and bloodshed without being completely turned off.  In the end it seemed to me that the good stuff in The Bible outweighed the bad, maybe not in quantity, but certainly in weight and worth.  The Bible is a fountain of inspiration and solace for those who may have a spiritual bent to them, and even for non-believers as well.  The story of Moses and Jonah, finding the strength to stand up to power, are particularly enlightening, and the books of Job and Ecclesiastes pose difficult questions on the nature of suffering.  The life of Jesus in the four Gospels of the New Testament are also of great value if you are looking for life lessons on how to live.  Jesus' parables are often like Zen koans and are a pleasure to read.  If you read nothing else of The Bible, read that at least.

Sometimes my friends are absent minded around me or just assume that because I have leftist leanings that I am anti-Christian.  I brush off their insults usually without correcting them, being too much of a gentleman to point out their small mistake.  Politicians who do hateful things in the name of Christianity are not much of a help, of course.  But at least Pope Francis is beginning to change many people's perceptions of what it means to be a Christian, and I am thankful for that.

Art and the Healing Power of Dreams by Chris Hall

Bronze head of Morpheus, Greek god of Dreams.

Bronze head of Morpheus, Greek god of Dreams.

“Physician, heal yourself:  thus you will heal your patient too.”  Friedrich Nietzsche.

“It is only by retaining and enhancing the original power of the image that the artist can take back his or her role as a redeemer and healer of the psyche from the theologian.”  Ann McCoy.

Many modern and (some) contemporary artists are aware of the power that dreams can have on healing the psyche.  In the Western culture, however, we have stepped away from dream analysis as a tool for healing, viewing it as irrational nonsense, favoring instead physical medicine, psychiatric drugs.  But dreaming can be more than a reflection of our fears and desires (the domain of Sigmund Freud). Dreaming can be a shamanic technology.  Dreams can be used for healing, guidance, and power — the classic domains of shamanism (championed by Carl Jung).  Jung considers the dream to be a vital and natural expression of the unconscious psychic process, and an X-ray of not only what is going on inside us individually, but also collectively within our culture.  Dreams are made up of a matrix of symbols, and as such, can be deciphered and analyzed.  The West hasn't always eschewed the power of dreams.  The Bible is full of episodes where dreams are used as signs to guide people on a proper course of action., from the psychopomp Joseph who correctly interprets the Pharaoh's dreams, thus avoiding starvation from a future famine, to Saint Joseph, Mary's husband, whose dreams foretold of consequences (the Massacre of the Innocents) if they did not flee with the Christ child to Egypt.  But dreams can do more than predict the future, they can also heal.  The ancient Greeks knew this well.  

Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dream.

Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dream.

In ancient Greek culture, dreams had a special significance.   The Greeks had not one, but three gods responsible for dreaming, and several other accessory gods to help produce the conditions necessary for dream to take place.  First and foremost were the three gods known as the Oneiroi (meaning Dreams).  Morpheus was the god of dreams, specializing in projecting human forms.  It is from his name that we derive the name morphine.  Phobetor was the god of nightmares, who excelled at projecting images of birds, beasts, and serpents.  We get the word phobia, “fear,” from his name.  Phantasos was the god of false dreams and illusions who was an expert at projecting the landscape, and things made of earth, rock, water, or wood.  From Phantasos we get the word phantom.  The father of the Oneiroi was Hypnos, the god of Sleep.  We derive the word hypnosis, meaning “sleep condition,” from the Greeks.  The Roman name for Hypnos is Somnus, from where we derive “somnambulism” (sleep walking) and insomnia (the inability to sleep).  Hypnos' wife, Pasithea, is the goddess of hallucination and relaxation.  Hypnos' twin brother is Thanatos, the god of Death, or the eternal sleep.  Hypnos' parents are Erebus, the god of Darkness, and Nyx, the goddess of Night.  Together they live in a mansion in a cave, where they never see the rising or the setting of the sun.  At the entrance to the cave grows a number of poppies and other hypnotic plants.  Their home doesn't have a door or gate, so that they might not be awakened by a creaking hinge.  The underworld river Lethe, known as the river of forgetfulness, flows through the cave.

Saint Joseph dreaming.

Saint Joseph dreaming.

Jungian psychologist Carl Alfred Meier tells us that “the Greeks, especially in the early period, regarded the dream as something that really happened; for them it was not, as it was in later times and to 'modern man' in particular, an imaginary experience.  The natural consequence of this attitude was that people felt it necessary to create the conditions that caused dreams to happen.”  To induce these dreams, the ancient Greeks would go to one of the thousands of temples dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek god of Medicine, hoping that their dreams might prescribe a healing course of action for everything from chronic pain, sexual dysfunction, and spiritual malaise.  These healing temples, called Asclepieia, were set in beautiful natural surroundings, often near a cave or a spring (the home of the Oneiroi and the source of Asclepius' healing powers).  

An Asclepius temple in Rome.

An Asclepius temple in Rome.

Asclepius, the god of Medicine, is the son of Apollo.  Asclepius' daughters Hygieia (health and cleanliness), Panacea (universal remedy), Iaso (recuperation from illness), Aceso (healing), and Aglaea (Beauty - yes beauty is important to healing and well-being) helped him in his practice.  The original Hippocratic Oath, used to swear in doctors up to the 1960's, began with the invocation "I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods ..." The rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff, is still used as a symbol of medicine today.  Apollo (himself known as a healer) carried the baby Asclepius to the centaur Chiron (Sagittarius) who raised him and instructed him in the art of medicine.  It is also said that in return for some kindness shown by Asclepius, a wise snake licked Asclepius' ears clean and also taught him secret healing knowledge  The Greeks believed snakes were sacred beings of wisdom, healing, and resurrection.  Today the non-venomous Mediterranean serpent, the Aesculapian Snake (Zamenis longissimus), is named for the god.  

Asclepius mosaic.

Asclepius mosaic.

Asclepius became so proficient as a healer that he eventually surpassed both Chiron and his father, Apollo.  Ascelpius was even able to raise the dead.  This caused a population boom, which displeased Hades, who had a lack of fresh souls in his kingdom.  Hades complained to his brother, Zeus, and Zeus resorted to killing off Asclepius in order to regain a balance.  After Asclepius' death, Zeus placed his body among the stars as the constellation Ophiuchus the Serpent Holder (acknowledged as the 13th sign in the zodiac).  Some sources, however, state that Zeus later resurrected Asclepius in order to prevent a feud with Apollo, but only on the condition that Asclepius never revive the dead without his approval again.  

Asclepius healing a sick girl.

Asclepius healing a sick girl.

Patients at an Asclepieia would first purify themselves in the gardens outside the temple, often leaving token votive offerings called pinakes.  Many of these pinakes were clay depictions of the body parts to be healed, everything from hands and feet, arms and legs, breasts and genitals, eyes and ears, and heads.  Patients would spend days, sometimes weeks, outside the temple before being let into the inner sanctum, the dream incubation chamber called the abaton.  Many abatons, like the one in the Asclepieia  Epidaurus, were located underground, in a labyrinth, symbolizing the dark and mysterious place where dreams come from, or a journey to the depths of the unconscious.  Here the injured or sick would sleep and pray in the chamber while non-venomous snakes sacred to Asclepius would slither around the temple floor unmolested.  The purpose of the incubation rite was to induce a vivid, ecstatic dream, a mantike atechnos or “artificial mania,” from which a dream interpreter might prescribe a course of action.

Pinakes from an Asclepieia.

Pinakes from an Asclepieia.

Sometimes the process of inducing a mantike atchnos would take days.  To help induce the healing dream, priests and priestesses would employ a number techniques.  First, the beds used in the ritual, called klines, were more like couches than beds, with a stone headrest encouraging the clients to elevate their heads and sleep on their backs.  It is thought by many that this sleep position encourages active dreaming.  Patients were also given powerful soporific drugs, such as opium in order to promote sleep and dreams.  Being underground, in constant total darkness, also disrupts circadian rhythms.  Light sleep, with more awakenings and a longer REM stage is the result, leading to powerful lucid dreaming.  Priests and priestesses would also whisper into the ears of the sleeping in order to facilitate dreaming.  Today we know that dreams can successfully incorporate sounds and suggestions into the dream narrative, as well as smells.  It would seem that the result of all of these techniques, used in combination, produces vivid dreams, if not realistic hypnagogic hallucinations.  

Mosaic of a dreamer at an Asclepieia.

Mosaic of a dreamer at an Asclepieia.

Asclepieia dream incubation chambers must have been powerful places.  These places were designed to produce dreams  providing healing wisdom as well as instant cures - and if we are to believe the boasts of ancient graffiti, they were successful.  Successful cures were also honored with inscriptions on the sanctuary walls, advertisement for future patients.  The Greeks believed that healing is holistic enterprise.  Life vitality comes as a result exercise and proper diet, but also spiritual practice and mindful study.  In the Western culture today, the first two are now the exclusive domain of the physician, while the later (and too often neglected) is a role being filled by theologians and artists.  But as the role of dreams in our life are continually being downplayed in contemporary religious practices, mirroring the advance of scientific rational thought, the mantle should be picked up more by artists.  In this regard, artists ought to be considered professional dreamers and even dream interpreters, like the shamans of old.  Through our art we should hope to not only heal ourselves, but also the world at large.  

"... in dreams we put on the likeness of that more universal, truer, more eternal man dwelling in the darkness of primordial night. There it is still the whole, and the whole is in him, indistinguishable from nature and bare from all egohood. Out of these all-uniting depths arises the dream, be it never so infantile, never so grotesque, never so immoral.”  Carl Jung.

Marc Chagall's The Falling Angel (1923 - 1947) by Chris Hall

Marc Chagall returned to Europe in 1946, arriving in Paris.  He and his beloved wife, Bella, fled from the Nazis in 1940 and found themselves in exile in New York City.  Bella died while in the United States, in 1944.  Now, alone in Paris, and with the burden of recent history on his mind, he felt he could at last finish his masterwork, The Falling Angel, which he had been working on for nearly 25 years.  Compared with most of Chagall's oeuvre, which tends toward the romantic and fantastical, The Falling Angel is a relatively dark piece.  Chagall's biographer would describe the painting as an “allegory of an age of terror.”

Chagall began working on the painting shortly after he left Moscow for the Montparnasse district of Paris, in 1923.  It combines Biblical and Torah lore with images taken from modern life and Chagall's own personal symbolism.  The Falling Angel would summarize all of Chagall's experiences he had lived through up to that point in his life.  Chagall had managed to get through the hardships of the Russian Revolution without too much trouble.  In a 1934 photograph of the unfinished work, the tone of the painting is much lighter.  There is a nice picket fence separating the viewer from the scene, and the falling angel resembles a youthful acrobat in a circus performance.  But the rise of the Nazis, the Second World War, the Holocaust, and his wife's death while in exile in the United States, had affected him deeply.  

As war seemed immanent, the work began to take on a foreboding and ominous tone.  The boyish acrobat became a flaming, falling angel, the figure of a man protecting the Torah and man with a cane losing his balance was added.  The grandfather clock, floating as if in the middle of a tornado, suggests that these are troubling times.  The painting depicts a dark world, overturned and shattered, it's space is a topsy-turvy and uncertain place.  Our vantage point—hovering over the village at the picture's center—suggests that we too are falling.  But all is not lost; Chagall does provide refuge from the storm.  A candle still burns bright in the gloom, a yellow cow plays the violin, the Madonna with Child rises from the flames, and Christ's halo shines like a lighthouse beacon into the night.  There is hope for the future.

Chagall, a Jew, believed the Crucifixion was the only image powerful enough to properly express the persecution, suffering, and attempted annihilation of his people.  Sometimes his crucified Christ is Jewish, with tallit and phylacteries, sometimes his Christ is the Christian Jesus, with a halo, and sometimes his crucified figure is meant to represent a secular, every man.  Sometimes in Chagall's Golgotha, he replaces the Roman soldiers with Nazis, and animals, rabbis and Russian peasants often stand in for grieving angels.

After The Falling Angel was exhibited, Chagall felt a change come over him.  Chagall had spent nearly 25 years, a generation, working on the painting, dragging it's 5' x 6' frame with him from city to city, and half way across the world and back.  He had socialized with other avant-garde artists and forward-thinking people in both Paris and New York.  Now he wished to retreat from public life.  In 1950 he moved to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, a quiet town on the Mediterranean coast of France.  He still had many years of painting ahead of him, but now he would do it in peace.

Saint Christopher the Dog Headed Saint by Chris Hall

Saint Christopher was a Christian martyr who lived during the reign of Roman Emperor Decius (reigned 249 – 251).  Christopher's name, in Greek (Christoforos), translates as “Christ-bearer.”  He earned this title for his act of carrying a child, who was unknown to him, across a river.  The child later revealed himself to be Christ and Christopher became the patron saint of travelers.

According to legend, Christopher originally went by the name Reprobus, which roughly translates as “Scoundrel.”  He was a Canaanite 5 cubits (7.5 feet (2.3 m)) tall and had a fearsome face like a dog.  In the New Testament, the Canaanites were reported to eat human flesh and to bark like dogs.  While serving the King of Canaan, he decided to leave and serve “the greatest king there was.”  He went to the king who was reported to be the greatest (historically, it is thought that Reprobus joined with the Roman Army, the Third Valerian Cohort of Marmantae, in North Africa), but one day he saw the king cross himself at the mention of the devil.  Learning that the king feared the devil, Reprobus left to look for devil, and serve him.  Soon he came across a band of marauders, lead by a man who declared himself to be “the devil.”  Reprobus joined their party.  But when he saw his new master avoid a cross found at a fork in the road, he found out the devil feared Christ, and so Reprobus left him in order to seek Christ.

Reprobus met with a hermit who taught him about the Christian faith.  He asked the hermit how he might serve Christ.  When the hermit suggested fasting and prayer, Reprobus replied that he was unable to perform these duties.  Next, the hermit suggested that because of his size and strength, Reprobus could serve Christ by ferrying people across a dangerous river that lay nearby.  It seemed that many people had drowned there while attempting to cross.  The hermit promised that this service would be pleasing to Christ.  After Reprobus had performed this service for some time, a little child approached and asked if he might take him across the river.  During the crossing, the river had swelled and the current strengthened.  The child who Reprobus was carrying on his shoulders had also become as heavy as lead and Reprobus barely made it across.  When they finally reached the other side, he said to the child, “You have put me in the greatest danger.  I do not think the whole world could have been as heavy on my shoulders as you were.”  The child replied, “You had on your shoulders not only the whole world, but Him who made it.  I am Christ, your king, whom you are serving by this work.”  The child then vanished.

Reprobus later visited the city of Lycia (in modern Turkey) where he comforted the Christians who were being martyred.  Brought before the local king (historically, the governor of Antioch), he refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods.  The king tried to win him over with the promise of wealth and by sending two beautiful women to tempt him.  Reprobus, instead, converted the women to Christianity.  The king then ordered his execution.  Various attempts on his life failed, but eventually Reprobus was decapitated.  Reprobus was a stranger in Antioch, and his name was not generally known.  He was given the name and title Christoforos, “Christ-bearer,” for his deeds.  Some historians have speculated that Saint Christopher's remains may have been taken to Alexandria by Peter of Attalia to be buried.  

Because Saint Christopher had offered protection to travelers and against sudden death, he quickly grew in popularity.  Many churches had placed images and statues of him in places where he could be easily seen, usually opposite the south door.  In the West he is usually depicted as a giant man, with the child Christ on his shoulder and a staff in one hand.  In Eastern Othordox icons, however, Saint Christopher is often depicted as a giant with the head of a dog.  The origin of the dog head depiction, which, incidentally, is called cynocephaly, can be traced to two sources.  According to legend, Reprobus was captured in combat on the border of Egypt and Libya before he switched sides and enlisted in the Roman Army.  He was recorded as being a giant and having the head of a dog instead of a man.  This was in addition to the Byzantine misinterpretation of the Latin name for his nationality, Cananeus (Canaanite), for canineus, which means canine.

Saint Sisoes and Alexander the Great's Bones by Chris Hall

After the fall of Constantinople in 1452 to the Ottoman Turks, there appeared to the newly subjugated Greeks an image of the 4th century ascetic, Saint Sisoes, lamenting over over the bones of the pagan emperor, Alexander the Great.  This strange icon is called the Astonishment of Saint Sisoes, and in it Saint Sisoes not only contemplates the death of a man, but also an entire earthly empire.  The icon first started to appear in Greek monasteries, but quickly spread to other monasteries throughout the former Byzantine Empire.  The inscription accompanying these icons reads:

Sisoes, the great ascetic, before the tomb of Alexander, King of the Greeks, who was once covered in glory.  Astonished, he mourns for the vicissitudes of time and the transience of glory, and tearfully declaims thus:

“The mere sight of you, tomb, dismays me and causes my heart to shed tears, as I contemplate the debt we, all men, owe.  How can I possibly stand it?  Oh, death!  Who can evade you?”

The icon, then, is a Greek memento mori (Latin: “Remember your mortality”), made more powerful by showing one of the greatest rulers in history – a  man who conquered half of the known world – as a pile of bones.  This recalls the famous quote, from an unknown source, on Alexander the Great which says, “A tomb now suffices him for whom the whole world was not sufficient.”

The pre-Christian Roman Emperors all believed their lineage could be traced to Alexander the Great, and this belief endured with the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, all the way through to the final emperor, Constantine the XI.  Alexander the Great was looked upon as the prime exemplar of earthly governance (a tradition which continued through the Middle Ages, with the Alexander Romances).  The icons of Saint Sisoes Astonished Before the Bones of Alexander the Great, then, was not just a reminder of death as the great equalizer, or the great brought low, but of the passing of an entire Empire, stretching back almost 2,000 years.

The location of Alexander the Great's body is mystery.  After his death in 323 BCE, the emperor was ceremoniously buried in the city that bore his name, Alexandria in Egypt.  The tomb was a place of pilgrimage for the pagan Emperors, with Alexander being worshiped as a kind of demi-god.  This all stopped when Christianity was made the official state religion of the Empire during the rule of Theodosius.  Without imperial patronage, pagan shrines and temple slowly fell into disuse.  In some areas, however, such as in Egypt, old pagan shrines and temples were destroyed quickly, and with extreme prejudice.  While Alexander the Great was held in great esteem by the Christians for his earthly accomplishments, they drew the line at worship.  It was under these circumstances that Alexander the Great's tomb disappeared, sometime in the late 4th century.  

Sisoes, as an Egyptian living during this time, might very well have witnessed the destruction of Alexander's tomb.  Saint Sisoes the Great, as he would be called after his death, was a solitary, ascetic monk, living in the Egyptian desert, in a cave sanctified by his predecessor, Saint Anthony the Great.  He lived there for sixty years, seeking the spiritual sublime, and was said to have been granted the gift of wonder-working, so that by his prayers he was once even able to restore a dead child back to life.

Christian Martyrs in Art: A Grotesque Fascination by Chris Hall

Saint Ignatius of Antioch, devoured by lions in the Colosseum.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch, devoured by lions in the Colosseum.

Maybe I have a sick mind, but I've always found depictions of Christian martyrs fascinating; you want to look away, but you can't.  I suspect I am not the only one today who thinks this way.  Of course I respect the holiness of saints, their wisdom, their many good works, and their dedication to their beliefs in the face of death.  But the imagination and grotesque beauty of the art suggests to me that the artists may have also been fascinated with their violent subject matter.  Incidentally, I've never cared too much for horror movies and realistic violence.  Usually, when the Christian martyrs are depicted in art, the violence is either stylized or symbolized in some way.

Click each image to enlarge.

Here we have Saint Agatha of Sicily, who had her breasts removed before being tortured to death.  She is often shown holding a plate or a chalice containing her breasts.

Saint Bartholomew was flayed alive.  Oddly enough, he is the patron saint of tanners.  Michelangelo painted himself as Saint Bartholomew's flayed skin in his Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.  Sometimes depictions of Saint Bartholomew can be pretty graphic, making my own skin crawl.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria was tortured to death on the wheel that now bears her name.  To have the object of your execution named after you seems like a strange honor.

Saint Clement of Rome was tied to an anchor, tossed into the sea, and drowned.

Saint Hippolytus of Rome, a convert and fellow soldier of Saint Sebastian, was drawn and quartered.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch was thrown into the Colosseum in Rome and devoured by lions.

Saint Lawrence was grilled alive.  Reportedly he had a sharp sense of humor, and told his torturers that he was he finished on one side, and that it was time to turn him over.

Saint Lucy of Syracuse had her eyes gouged out prior to her execution.  She is often depicted holding a plate containing her own eyes.

Saint Peter of Verona was hacked to death.  He is often shown with a sword in the head.

Saint Sebastian is a favorite subject among Renaissance artists.  He was a Roman soldier under Diocletian and a Christian Convert.  When he was found out, he tied to a tree and had arrows shot at him.  Saint Sebastian was reportedly brought back to life by Irene of Rome, but when Saint Sebastian went directly to Diocletian to rebuke him, he was killed a second time, this time by being clubbed to death.

St. Nicholas: Bad Ass Super Saint by Chris Hall

If God dies, at least we’ll still have St. Nicholas.  Russian proverb.

Nicholas was an early Christian and Bishop of Myra, Greece (now Demre, in modern day Turkey).  Because of his charity and also because of the many miracles that were attributed to him during his life, he was also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker.  St Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, children, merchants, archers, repentant thieves and murderers, brewers, pawnbrokers, students, merchants, judges, the poor, victims of judicial mistakes, captives, perfumers, and many more. . . A full list of the people who St Nicholas protects can be found here:

Nicholas was very religious from an early age and according to legend, Nicholas was said to have rigorously observed ritual fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays.  Nicholas is reported to have been a lean man, and not the jolly old elf of Santa Claus legend.  Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Nicholas suffered for his faith, and at one point was exiled and imprisoned.  Some icons show him as having dark skin, so yes; there is a chance that Santa Claus is a black man.  

St Nicholas Reputation for Gift Giving

Nicholas had a reputation for secret gift giving and would often put coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.  This habit, along with his protection of children, led to his being the inspiration for Santa Claus (Santa Claus is derived from the Dutch “Sinterklass,” a corruption of “Saint Nikolaos.”  In one of his most famous gift giving exploits, Nicholas discovered a poor man with three young daughters.  The poor man could not afford a dowry for his daughters, which meant that they would remain unmarried, and might possibly have to resort to prostitution.  Nicholas decided to help them anonymously, either out of modesty or possibly to save them the humiliation of having to accept charity.  As the eve of the first two girls coming of age, Nicholas would toss a bag of gold coins through the open window.  On the eve of his third daughter’s birthday, the poor man decided to lay in wait to discover his secret benefactor.  Nicholas learned of the plan, and instead tossed the third bag into the chimney.  The youngest daughter had hung up her stockings to dry near the hearth, and the bag of gold somehow landed in one of the stockings.

St Nicholas Stays an Execution

One day while out visiting a remote part of his diocese, several citizens from his home city in Myra came to him and told him of how the ruler Eustathius had wrongfully condemned three Knights to death.  On reaching the outskirts of the city, Nicholas learned that the prisoner’s execution by beheading was to happen that morning.  Nicholas ran to the executioner’s field and stayed the executioner’s sword, which he then threw to the ground.  Nicholas ordered the release of the innocent prisoners and then went to confront Eustathius.  Eustathius confessed his crime and Nicholas absolved him after a period of penance.

St Nicholas Resurrects Three Murdered Children

Nicholas is attributed as having miraculous powers, as well.  In one legend, during a terrible famine, an evil butcher lured three children (or in some stories, three traveling students) to his house, where he killed them, placing their remains in a barrel to cure.  He planned to sell the meat as ham.  Nicholas, who was visiting the region to care for the hungry, dreamed of the crime, and went to the house of the evil butcher.  Nicholas them resurrected the three dead boys from the barrel.  

St Nicholas and the Miracle of the Wheat

According to another legend, during the same famine (between 311 and 312), a ship anchored off Myra which was loaded with wheat for the Emperor in Constantinople.  Nicholas implored the sailors to share some of the wheat with the starving people of Myra.  The sailors were reluctant to share because they knew that the cargo had been weighed and any deviation would be reported.  Nicholas promised the sailors that they would not suffer any loss for their consideration, so sailors agreed and unloaded a share of the wheat.  When the sailors arrived in Constantinople, they found that the wheat weighed the same, as if nothing was taken.  The people of Myra, however had enough wheat for two full years.

St. Nicholas Conquers the Sea

Returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Nicholas found himself aboard a sinking ship in a storm.  Nicholas prayed, the seas calmed, and the ship was rescued.  This was only the first of many episodes which Nicholas figures in the rescuing of ships and sailors.  Nicholas would become the patron saint of sailors, who in return would spread Nicholas’ popularity around the world.  In another legend, a ship in the eastern Mediterranean Sea was caught in a storm.  The sailors were unable to move the ship to safer waters.  The sailors, hearing of Nicholas’ earlier interventions, prayed for Nicholas to help.  Nicholas actually appeared over the ship and then gave the sailors a helping hand, retying and strengthening the ropes holding the masts, and guiding the ship to safety.  As soon as the ship and sailors were rescued, the Nicholas vanished into thin air.  Because of the many stories of Nicholas coming to the aid of ships and sailors, Nicholas became known as “The Lord of the Sea,” a Christianized version of Poseidon.  

Posthumous Activities

After Nicholas’s death, it did not take long for him to be sainted.  Meanwhile, the miracles continued.  One evening the townspeople of Myra were celebrating St. Nicholas’ feast day, on December 6th, when a band of Arab pirates from Crete came into town and ransacked the place.  The pirates stole everything of value, and even took a young boy, Basilios, away to sell as a slave.  The young boy became the slave of the Emir, and would often serve the Emir wine in a beautiful golden cup.  Devastated by the lost of their only child, Basilios’ parents grieved for a whole year, until the next St. Nicholas feast.  Basilios’ parents then prayed to St. Nicholas for Basilios’ safety.  St Nicholas then appeared to Basilios and whisked the terrified boy away, and returned him to his parents.  The whole thing happened so quickly, Basilios was still holding the Emir’s golden cup.

St. Nicholas’s Magic Bones

St. Nicholas tomb in Myra became a popular place of pilgrimage.  Because of the many wars in the region, many Christians became concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult.  For both the religious and commercial advantages that come with having a major pilgrimage site, the cities of Bari and Venice, Italy, began to compete with each other for hosting the saint’s bones.  In 1087, 62 pirates from Bari resolved to settle the matter, when one of them reportedly had a vision of St. Nicholas commanding him to recover his bones in order to preserve them from the impending Muslim conquest.  The pirates, or sailors (depending on who is telling the tale) in a rush because of the resistance from Greek Orthodox monks, collected only half of the bones, and re-interned them in Bari, in Southern Italy.  Venetian sailors got what was left of St Nicholas during the First Crusade and placed the remains in a newly built church to St. Nicholas on the Lido.

While in Myra, the relics of St. Nicholas began to exude a clear watery liquid, smelling of rose water or myrrh.  The locals called it manna.  The mysterious manna was said to possess miraculous healing powers.  St Nicholas’ bones in Bari continue to ooze the magic potion, which is collected once a year by the clergy of the basilica on May 9th, the anniversary of St. Nicholas’ re-internment.  Today you can purchase vials of St. Nicholas manna, economically diluted in Holy Water, in the basilica’s gift shop.

This is not Saint Nicholas' bones, but Alexander the Great's bones, as discovered by St. Sisoes.  Still, a nice illustration.

St. Nicholas Today

St. Nicholas continues to have an exciting afterlife in his incarnation as Father Christmas or Santa Claus.  There is the whole living at the North Pole thing, the elves that make toys, and of course the flying reindeer.  In the Netherlands Santa Claus is accompanied by a mischievous Moor (or more commonly a white Dutchman in blackface) named Black Pieter.  In parts of Germany and Austria, Santa Claus gets help from a demon named Krampus, who punishes all the wicked children.  While in the United States, Santa Claus drinks Coca-Cola gets help from a flying reindeer with a glowing red nose.

In 1993, historians believe they had found the original tomb of St. Nicholas on the Turkish island of Gemile.  On December 28, 2009, the Turkish government announced that they would be making a formal request to return St. Nicholas’ skeletal remains back to Turkey, saying his remains were illegally removed from his homeland.  There is no word as to how the people of Venice and Bari responded.  Turkey is 99.8% Muslim, and although officially a secular state, they have had difficulty accepting St. Nicholas.  In 2000 a Russian bronze sculpture of St. Nicholas in orthodox vestments was erected in Demre (formally St. Nicholas’ hometown of Myra).  Buses of Russian tourists arrived everyday to Demre, who would then knell and pray at the base of the statue.  In 2005, the city removed the statue and replaced it with a brightly painted plastic resin statue of the more secular Santa Claus.  This caused an international uproar, but the city held its ground until Christmas Day, 2008, when they replaced the statue a second time, this time with a fiberglass version of St Nicholas with Turkish facial features and clothing.  The controversy continues, however, as some have pointed out that St. Nicholas was Greek, and the Turks did not arrive in the region until the 11th century.  

Coptic Art by Chris Hall

I’ve always loved early Christian Art, from the late Roman era to the Byzantine and Romanesque.  Somewhere in between this time period, and nearly forgotten, is Coptic Art.  Coptic Art is essentially early Christian Art in Egypt.  Coptic art and culture is heavily influenced by Hellenistic (Greek) and Egyptian art and culture.  Historically, the Coptic Period began around the 3rd century with the Roman occupation of Egypt, until the Muslim Conquest in the 7th century, although Coptic art and culture can be found as early as the 1st century and as late as the 9th century CE.  Christians never left Egypt, however, and there was a brief demand for new Coptic icons in the mid 18th century.  

Icon painting has a lengthy tradition in Coptic Egypt, dating back to St. Luke the evangelist, author of the Gospel of Luke in the Bible.  Born in Antioch Syria, Luke was not a witness to Jesus teachings, but was among the first generation of Christians afterward and traveled with Paul to Rome to spread Christianity.  According to tradition, Luke wrote his gospel around 60 CE.  Luke also painted the portraits of Mary, mother of Jesus, and of Paul and Peter, making him the first icon painter.  Luke resided for a time in Egypt and contributed to Coptic culture.  Luke was tortured before being hanged from an olive tree on his last missionary trip in Beothia, Greece.  

The Coptics followed Egyptian burial traditions and mummified their dead (the Greeks would cremate their dead).  Coptic artists would paint portraits of the dead in encaustic (pigment suspended in wax) and in tempera (pigment suspended in egg yolk) on to wooden boards, which they would then attach to the mummified bodies, acting as a funeral mask.  This tradition is known as Fayum (or Faiyum) mummy portraiture, due to the majority of the mummy portraits being found in the Faiyum Basin.  Unlike Egyptian aesthetics, the Fayum mummy portraits are more naturalistic, following Greek tradition.  Due to the hot and dry Egyptian climate, the mummy portraits are often very well preserved, retaining their brilliant colors as if freshly painted.  I’ve always been haunted by these portraits.  Looking at the apparent age of the portraits, it seems the vast majority of the dead are very young, some are even children.  Examination of the mummies confirms that the age distribution of the dead reflects the low life expectancy of the time.  Not everyone could afford a mummy portrait, however.  The vast majority of mummy portraits belong to the affluent upper class, high ranking military personnel, civil servants, and religious dignitaries.  Fayum mummy portraits were lost to European consciousness until the Italian explorer Pietro della Valle rediscovered them in a visit to Saqqara-Memphis in 1615.