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St Nicholas is shown in half-length, wearing the classical vestments of a bishop. His right hand is raised in an ancient gesture signifying oration (or teaching), while he is holding an open gospel book in his left hand with an inscription from the Gospel of Luke (6:17). His eyes gaze directly at the viewer. Two roundels - containing Christ in the left (blessing Nicholas) and the Mother of God in the right (holding a veil) - surround Nicholas on either side of the saint's shoulders.
This icon was painted in Kholui in Russia, which, along with Palekh and Mstera, was an icon painting centre that produced icons on an industrial scale (sometimes hundreds of icons a day) for pilgrims and the peasantry and thus was influenced by contemporary Russian folk art. These artists are sometimes known as 'Suzdalians', while the type of icon is referred to in Russia as krasnushka. Yuri Bobrov describes these workshops as being hereditary family businesses:
Three villages to the east of Moscow which were famous in the 18th and 19th centuries as centres of traditional icon painting. The inhabitants of these villages ran their family businesses from generation to generation, inheriting icon-painting skills from their fathers. Nearly all the known icon painters of the 19th - early 20th century originated from these villages.
They are simple, humble works, yet 'these popular icons can exude great charm and sincerity', as Wendy R. Salmond writes about the Kholui school. Oleg Tarasov also notes that these icons 'possess a special spirit of folk creativity and their own emotional tuning.'
Our version of St Nicholas can be compared to other 19th century examples of the same iconography from similar Russian workshops, such as an object currently in the State Research Institute for Restoration in Moscow (fig. a).