Getting to Know the Saint Who Inspired Santa
Fr. Richard Kunst, Curator
The most powerful and prestigious family in Renaissance Italy was the Medicis. It was the family of origin of several popes. The Medicis were the patrons of great artists such as Michelangelo, the financiers of wars, and the builders of great palaces and churches all throughout the Italian peninsula and beyond.
Like all important families and people, they had their own coat of arms — their own signature, if you will. The coat of arms of the Medici family can be seen on buildings all over Italy, whether from one of the several popes who bore the name or from one of the other wealthy family members.
But the Medicis were not always rich and powerful. They had very humble beginnings, and one of the ways in which they tried to initially assert themselves was to invent and fabricate a family connection to the most popular saint of the time, St. Nicholas of Bari, more simply known as St. Nicholas.
St. Nicholas is most well known for helping young girls escape being sold into prostitution because they did not have money for a dowry in order to get married. As was the custom of the day, the parents would have had no choice but to sell them into a life of prostitution.
Nicholas was the bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey. He threw gold coins into the house to save the girls from this fate. Ever since then, gold coins or gold balls have been one of the images associated with the saint.
Lo and behold, what is the image on the Medici coat of arms? Five gold coins, in an attempt by the family to catch a little of the great saint’s popularity.
In October we took a closer look at the real St. Francis, as opposed to the popular image that has been handed down to us. I was pleasantly surprised by the feedback the column received, so let’s take a look at another extremely popular saint. Who is the real St. Nicholas?
Well, to be perfectly honest, we really don’t know, or at least we don’t know much. What we do know is that for centuries he has been extremely popular, as seen by the Medici family.
Today there are more than 2,000 churches named after him in France and Germany alone. Many of them are Protestant churches! There are 400 parishes named for him in England.
Five popes took the name Nicholas in his honor.
He is the patron saint of sailors, travelers (with St. Christopher) and bakers, not to mention pawnbrokers, a profession that also takes the gold balls of St. Nicholas as its emblem.
He is also the patron saint of entire countries, like Greece and Russia.
In 1087, there was a fierce competition among European cities to steal his body from the Muslims in Turkey. Eventually the city of Bari, Italy was successful, and to this day that is where his relics are venerated.
More than anything else, St. Nicholas is known as the saint who inspired Santa Claus, as in Dutch his name is Sint Niklaas (say that 10 times fast).
His liturgical feast day is Dec. 6.
And still, with all this popularity, we hardly know a thing about him. The only thing we know for certain is that he was a bishop in the fourth century. That’s it. Everything else we know is either legend or from the first biography written about him, 500 years after his death, by St. Methodius.
That doesn’t mean that everything else is false, since certainly, as happens with many popular figures in history, there were oral histories — histories that passed from generation to generation until they were finally written. Some of those stories could have been exaggerated, but they still likely come from actual historical events.
My favorite story of old St. Nick is not one that appears too often in children’s books or anywhere, for that matter. As a bishop, St. Nicholas apparently took part in the Council of Nicaea in 325, which in part was called to defeat a heresy called Arianism, named after a bishop, Arius, who taught that God the Son was not eternal like God the Father. The argument got so heated that St. Nicholas hauled off and struck Arius in the nose! (Imagine Santa Claus beating up a bishop!) Nicholas was actually thrown into jail for his violent reaction, but later he was exonerated when Bishop Arius was condemned as a heretic.
Today, all over the country and beyond, children in Catholic schools like my own at St. John’s in Duluth will place their shoes outside the classroom on the eve of Dec. 6 in hopes that St. Nicholas will leave a treat for them.
St. Nicholas is as popular today as he has ever been, and though we know little about him, he still inspires the faith and imagination of people everywhere. What is important to note is that he was a holy man who strived to be ever more like Christ, and that is why he is a saint. That is why we continue to emulate and venerate him. St. Nicholas, pray for us!
The Medici Popes on Papal Artifacts
An autograph signed as Cardinal Angelo De Medici on November 23rd, 1555. It concerns an appointment of the Church of Cassano with the previous approval of the Duke of Florence and the King of England.
It is known as an Als, an autographed letter signed which means that a calligrapher signed for him and then he signed on the bottom as Cardinal De Medici.
1605 (27 Days)
The artifact is a document signed by Cardinal Alessandro de’ Medici, the future Pope Leo XI, while he was the cardinal-archbishop of Florence.
This is a particularly valuable addition to the Collection given the incredibly short duration of his papacy: it began on April 1st, 1605 and ended on April 27th of that month, a mere 27 days later. His pontificate is one of the briefest in history.
For three centuries, the Medici family, known by this logo, was one of the most powerful in Italy. Coming from Florence, some of them eventually moved to Rome and had four men become pope in between the years of 1513 to 1605.
During their reign of power, they lived at Palazzo Medici, now the Italian Senate, in the middle of Rome. The current Parliamentary Councilor explains their story.
“The palace became the residence of Margaret of Austria and was home to two very important popes, Leo X and Clement VII. The palace was bought by Giovanni di Medici, before he was elected pope. From Florence, he moved his father’s library to Palazzo Madama in Rome. Giovanni was the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Thanks to his presence, the building becomes a very important cultural center for the times.” :
Apart from books, the Medici family also brought with them art, architecture and a rich culture. Interesting pieces can be found all around from this ostrich, dedicated to Margaret. It is a play on words between the French translations of Austria and ostrich. It also symbolizes speed, strength, steadiness and love.
There are another eight rooms, however, dedicated to the four Medici popes. Each pope had two rooms dedicated to him, with frescoes representing his pontificate.
“The Medici family was an important family. It was a wealthy family especially in trade and in bank management. As was the custom of the rich and powerful families at the time. They managed to have houses in other areas. It was a symbol of power. Most of all, religious power.”
Giovanni de Medici was the first one to become pope, taking the name Leo X. He is known for the indulgence controversy, which ultimately let to the Lutheran Reformation. The palace has Garibaldi Hall dedicated to him. The room was originally divided into two, but has now been joined with lions represented in the frescoes, a staple Medici symbol.
Leo X’s cousin, Giulio de Medici became Pope Clement VII in 1523. He is depicted in the Hall of the Ostrich and Risorgimento Hall.
The third pope, Pius IV, is remembered in Marconi Hall and Anteroom of the Balustrade. Pius IV, was born in Milan, not related to the Medici’s from Florence. He is known for presiding over the final session of the Council of Trent.
The fourth Medici had a pontificate 27 days long due to an illness that took his life. Leo XI has a painting of him in bed, being asked by his confessor to name his nephew a cardinal. He extends his arm, clearly saying “no” right before his death.
“Grand Duke Gian Gastone was the last Medici in the 1700s. He was the last representative of the Medici family to live in Palazzo Madama, because the Grand Duke of Tuscany then changed from the Medici Family to Francis of Lorraine and this completely changes the history of the palace from then on.”
That’s why today, there are still these small paintings and memories of the Medici Family, the famous bankers and traders of Florence who transferred to Rome and are forever remembered in the history of the Catholic Church.