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Two miracles from the Life of St. Nicholas : Wissington, Suffolk (‡St. Edmundsbury & Ipswich) Late C.13

Photo: T.Marshall Life of St. Nicholas, detail, 3 boys in the barrel (44KB)

Left : The Three Boys in the Barrel
One of the best-known of the miracles of St. Nicholas, and certainly the most frequently found in English wallpainting, it is now desperately faint despite more than one restoration.
At the bottom centre of the scene is the roughly square red barrel, and above it an accustomed eye might be able to make out three small heads in profile (that on the right is clearest). The boys are emerging from the pickling-tub, and they have their arms stretched out horizontally to the right of the picture, where St. Nicholas once stood with his mitre and pastoral cross. Only a few vague patches of yellow pigment are left of him now, but they still just manage to imply a standing figure, with the vertical spiral band dividing all the scenes at Wissington further right. There were once at least two more figures, now reduced to the patches of red pigment at the upper left - EW Tristram suggested that these were the parents of the boys; his drawing of the scene when they were were much clearer hangs in the church and, along with many of the other Wissington paintings, is reproduced in his 13th century volume.²

Right : The Miracle of the Cup. Much rarer, this miracle tells of a man who prayed for a son, promising a golden cup to the altar of St. Nicholas if his prayer was answered. The desired son was born, and when the father received the cup from the goldsmith he liked it so much that he had a second one made. Unfortunately, on their journey by ship to the altar of St. Nicholas in fulfilment of the vow, the boy, fetching his father water in the first cup, fell overboard and drowned. The cup was lost. The account in the Golden Legend continues: Life of St. Nicholas, detail, Miracle of the Cup (61KB)

‘Yet nevertheless the father performed his avow, in weeping much tenderly for his son; and when he came to the altar of S. Nicholas he offered the second cup, and when he had offered it, it fell down, like as one had cast it under the altar. And he took it up and set it again upon the altar, and then yet was it cast further than tofore and yet he took it up and remised it the third time upon the altar; and it was thrown again further than tofore. Of which thing all they that were there marvelled, and men came for to see this thing. And anon, the child that had fallen in the sea, came again prestly before them all, and brought in his hands the first cup, and recounted to the people that, anon as he was fallen in the sea, the blessed S. Nicholas came and kept him that he had none harm. And thus his father was glad and offered to S. Nicholas both the two cups.’¹
The various stages of the story are compressed into one continuous scene, dominated by the fully-spread sail of the ship. A seated figure at the far left of this might be the father, with other figures, all extremely faint, those of the boy and sailors attending to the rigging. At the far right stands St. Nicholas, hand raised in blessing and much clearer here, while between him and the ship are again several people, presumably the boy and his parents, in attitudes of thanksgiving, with one pair of extended hands still visible.

Nicholas’s cult is very ancient, but all accounts of his life, including that of the 9th century Methodius, are in varying degrees unreliable, and all his many miracles are as fantastical as those discussed here. None of this detracted in the slightest from his enormous popularity throughout medieval Europe, east and west.

Another painting of St. Nicholas & the Three Boys at Padworth in Berkshire is now here (table below, and that at Bishopsbourne in Kent will be here soon. What is left of the example at Little Horwood in Buckinghamshire, which has fuller details of the boys-in-the-barrel incident, is already here, and there are one or two more still to come.

Most of the other paintings at Wissington are now on the site, including the Nativity, with the Virgin in bed, the Adoration and Dream of the Magi (link below), with the Magi in bed this time, a St. Michael Weighing Souls, St. Francis Preaching to the Birds - probably the earliest representation of the saint in England - and the remains of a Passion Cycle

¹ This is Caxton’s translation of the Golden Legend, according to which the second cup was of the same value as the first, but the usually reliable Anna Jameson, who was presumably using a different source or a different version of the Legend, specifically describes the second cup as made of silver. (A Jameson, Sacred & Legendary Art, Vol 2, 3rd edition, London, 1857, p. 463). The extract on this page is taken from the online Golden Legend : Life of St. Nicholas. A second link, to the Main Page/Index of the online Legend is newly on the Links Page of this site.
² Tristram 2, English Medieval Wall Painting : The 13th Century, London, 1950. Part 2, Plates, Pl. 185b. (Tristram, incidentally, refers to the village & church as ‘Wiston’, which remains the local pronounciation).

St. Andrew Martyred, Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Anne teaching the Virgin to read-Corby Glen, Lincolnshire St. Antony and the Pig, Barton, Cambridgeshire St. Barbara : Hessett, Suffolk St. Bartholomew : Selling, Kent St.Catherine of Alexandria, life of : Castor, Cambs St Catherine of Alexandria, Cold Overton, Leicestershire NEW St.Catherine of Alexandria : Hardley Street, Norfolk
St.Catherine of Alexandria : Old Weston, Northants St.Catherine of Alexandria : Pickering, N. Yorks St.Catherine of Alexandria, life of : Sporle, Norfolk St. Catherine of Alexandria, Martyrdom of: Burton Latimer, Northants NEW St. Catherine of Alexandria or another female saint : Ashley, Hampshire NEW St. Clement : South Leigh, Oxon. Scenes from the life of St. Cuthbert : Pittington, Co. Durham NEW St. Dunstan holding the Devil by the nose : Barton, Cambs
St.Edmund : Boxford, Suffolk St. Edmund : Lakenheath, Suffolk St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Bishopsbourne, Kent St.Edmund, Martyrdom of : Fritton, Norfolk St. Edmund (or St. Walstan) : Gisleham, Norfolk St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Pickering, N.Yorks St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Troston, Suffolk
St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Weare Giffard, Devon St.Eloi, Broughton, Bucks St. Eloi and the possessed horse, Slapton, Northants St. Eloi, as bishop & blacksmith, Wensley, N.Yorks St.Erasmus, Martyrdom of : Chippenham, Cambs St. Etheldreda : Willingham, Cambs St. Francis Preaching to the Birds : Little Kimble, Bucks St.Francis Preaching to the Birds : Wissington, Suffolk
St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Slapton, Northants St. George & Dragon : Banningham, Norfolk St. George & Dragon : Broughton, Bucks St. George & Dragon : Earl Stonham, Suffolk St. George & Dragon : Fritton, Norfolk St. George & Dragon : Hornton, Oxon St. George dedicating himself to the Virgin : Astbury, Cheshire St. George, with the princess : Little Kimble, Bucks
St. George & the Dragon : Kirtlington, Oxon NEW St.Helena, Broughton, Bucks St.James the Great : Hales, Norfolk Life of St. James, Stoke Orchard, Gloucestershire St. James the Great, meeting pilgrims : Wisborough Green, Sussex St. James the Great, Yelden (or Yielden), Beds NEW St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Chalfont St. Giles, Bucks St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Heydon, Norfolk
St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Idsworth, Hampshire St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Old Weston, Northants St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Pickering, N. Yorks Life of St. John the Baptist : Cerne Abbas, Dorset St. John the Evangelist, Selling, Kent St. John the Evangelist, Weston Longville, Norfolk St. Margaret of Antioch : Old Weston, Northants St. Margaret and the dragon : South Newington, Oxfordshire
St. Margaret of Antioch Martyred, Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Margaret of Antioch, Life of : Charlwood, Surrey Life of St. Margaret, Wendens Ambo, Essex Martyrdom of St. Margaret, Duxford, Cambridgeshire Martyrdom of St. Margaret, Ashby St Ledgers, Northamptonshire NEW St. Martin dividing his cloak, Chalgrave, Beds St. Martin dividing his cloak, Wareham, Dorset St Michael, with kneeling donor, South Newington, Oxfordshire
St.Nicholas of Myra, life of : Little Horwood, Bucks
St. Nicholas of Myra, two miracles of : Wissington, Suffolk St. Nicholas of Myra & the Boys in the Barrel, Padworth, Berkshire St. Nicholas of Myra & the Boys in the barrel, Bishopsbourne, Kent NEW St.Paul : Black Bourton, Oxon St. Paul : Beckley, Oxon St. Paul : Selling, Kent St. Peter : Beckley, Oxon
St.Peter : Black Bourton, Oxon St. Peter, Martyrdom of : Chacombe, Northants St. Peter : Selling, Kent SS. Peter & Paul, Old Idsworth, Hampshire NEW St. Roch : Pinvin, Worcs St. Sexburga? : Willingham, Cambs S. Stephen, Martyrdom of, North Stoke, Oxon St. Stephen, Stoning of: Black Bourton, Oxon
St. Stephen, Stoning of: Catfield, Norfolk St.Swithun (?) enthroned : Old Weston, Northants Scenes from the life of St. Swithun : Corhampton, Hampshire St. Thomas Becket, blessing, Hauxton, Cambs. Archbishop, possibly Thomas Becket, blessing, Shorthampton, Oxfordshire NEW St. Thomas Becket, Murder of, Marston Magna, Somerset St. Thomas Becket, Murder of, North Stoke, Oxfordshire St.Thomas Becket, Murder of : South Burlingham, Norfolk
St. Thomas Becket, Murder of : South Newington, Oxfordshire St. Walstan of Bawburgh? or St. Edmund : Gisleham, Norfolk St. Zita : Horley, Oxon St. Zita : Shorthampton, Oxon Unidentified female saint : Heydon

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Anne Marshall 2002**++4/3/13